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Politics Ottawa’s allies feel the chill as Beijing shows how it will likely act as a superpower

There have been detentions, dark warnings and a death sentence. And the rhetoric in the seething dispute with China turned strangely to whether Canada has a lot of friends. In Beijing, the Chinese foreign ministry’s surprisingly pugnacious spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, dismissed Canada’s efforts to rally international support in its tense dispute with China, using what sounded in translation like a schoolyard taunt: Canada’s “so-called allies,” she said, “could be counted on 10 fingers.”

Maybe she was just being mean, but in a way, Ms. Hua put her finger on a consequential question about the dispute that has raged since Canadian police arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of U.S. authorities on Dec. 1. Does Canada have weighty support in the world, or is it as good as alone in facing intimidation from a rising superpower?

There have been an unusual number of public statements of support from countries stepping into a bilateral dispute, from the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Australia, as well as the European Union. A U.S. summary of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Tuesday night call with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland reported that they “expressed their concerns about the arbitrary detentions and politically motivated sentencing of Canadian nationals.”

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But Ms. Hua’s argument was that despite their statements, 10 fingers' worth of countries doesn’t amount to global opinion lining up against China. And the question of whether there will be a global counterweight to such actions really does matter: It seems pretty clear now that China’s behaviour as a superpower will include intimidation of smaller countries and the ruthless use of citizens caught in the middle.

That doesn’t mean international support will lead to a quick release of the two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were detained in retaliation for Ms. Meng’s arrest, for example.

The Chinese have made it pretty plain that what they care about is Ms. Meng’s release, and there’s not much optimism that there will be any change in Beijing’s actions before her case is settled − and if she’s extradited to the United States, the tensions could last a very long time.

But Ms. Freeland is right to say, as she did Wednesday, that other countries feel this dispute might eventually matter to them. Britain, France, Australia – and many others – have to worry that China will do the same to them. They should hope that China decides there is a cost to its actions.

The United States is a case apart. It’s the world’s most powerful country, and it’s already in a major trade confrontation with China. But no other country on Earth has the same leverage.

And they now know that they might one day see their citizens used as pawns. That has worried some countries. So has the Canadian government’s report, through diplomatic channels, that Beijing interrogated Mr. Kovrig, a former diplomat, on his diplomatic activities in China – even though the Vienna Convention stipulates that an individual’s past diplomatic work is supposed to be covered by ongoing diplomatic immunity. That’s the sort of thing that officials in foreign offices around the world view as a chilling kind of superpower behaviour.

But of course, it’s not so easy to speak up. Why risk retaliation? Australia wasn’t thrilled about chastising its largest trading partner over a Canadian dispute. South Korea, which has been pummelled by Chinese trade sanctions in past disputes, has stayed mum.

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But China is susceptible to global public opinion. It can affect its soft power. Beijing is always on an international image campaign, because that has an impact on whether countries are willing to sign trade deals with it, or extradition treaties, and how much its business is welcomed rather than resented.

Presumably, China wants other countries to fear speaking out. It will also want other countries to fear crossing Beijing – even if it is only for living up to their international legal obligations, as Canada did. But most other countries have an interest in the other side – they must hope that China will feel there is a cost to holding foreign citizens hostage as a bully tactic.

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