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The Conservatives are demanding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau call China’s President over the detention of two Canadians, but a phone call from the PM isn’t going to be enough. Yet there are some things that might make Beijing think twice.

The trick isn’t in letting the Chinese know that Canada’s Prime Minister cares. Beijing already knows that the detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou is high on Mr. Trudeau’s radar.

What matters is making Beijing understand that its own tactics are self-defeating.

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It’s no secret that the detention of the two Canadians is linked to Ms. Meng’s arrest at the request of U.S. authorities, who seek her extradition on allegations that she misled banks into transactions that violated sanctions against Iran.

China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, has linked them in op-eds in both The Globe and Mail and the Ottawa political paper The Hill Times – in which he this week called the detentions an act of “self-defence” and argued that those who don’t see them as similar to Ms. Meng’s arrest are guilty of “Western egotism and white supremacy.”

Certainly, China has made this a point of pride. Huawei is a Chinese corporate champion, and Ms. Meng is the daughter of its founder, Ren Zhengfei. The Global Times, the Communist Party of China’s jingoistic tabloid, has argued that Beijing must be tough on Canada to ensure that other countries realize there is a price to be paid.

And while Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor languish in Chinese jails, there’s a political spitting war in Canada over how the situation should be handled.

Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals are trying to rally international allies to complain to Beijing, but the Conservatives insist the PM should be calling Chinese President Xi Jinping. Conservative MP Erin O’Toole said he is troubled that Mr. Trudeau called U.S. President Donald Trump over the case, but not Mr. Xi.

But what matters isn’t really whether Mr. Trudeau calls his allies, or China’s President. “It’s not an either-or situation,” noted John Kamm, who heads the San Francisco-based Dui Hua foundation and has worked on a long list of Chinese detention cases.

Mr. O’Toole is right to call for more political pressure. There should be a rising drumbeat from Ottawa. But there is a reason that officials often advise prime ministers to wait before calling a head of state to ask for the release of a wrongfully detained Canadian. If the answer from the top is an early, categorical “no,” it’s difficult to plot a next step. The game plan is usually to build up pressure first.

That’s why efforts to rally allies against China are worthwhile. Britain, France, Germany, the United States and the European Union have issued statements decrying the detention.

Mr. Kamm, who is working on the detention of at least one of the Canadian detainees – he would not say which – at the request of their family, said it would be appropriate for Mr. Trudeau to call Mr. Xi or Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, but what’s important is not one call to China, but having lots of conversations.

The real issue is spreading the word in a way that makes China decide the detentions of Canadians aren’t in its own interests. “When the cost to China exceeds the benefits they gain from detaining, that’s when China takes action,” Mr. Kamm said.

And China is hurting its own soft power with this case. Countries such as Germany and France should worry that their citizens will be detained in a future dispute. Businesses should fear their employees might be taken as pawns. Mr. Kamm said it would be good for organizations such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce to express concern. The episode will harm China’s reputation as a safe place for foreigners to do business.

Beijing has spent years trying to convince the world, including Western countries such as Canada, that they are a benign, reliable partner for trade deals, extradition treaties and more. Taking foreign citizens into custody without real due process punches a hole in all that.

It’s hard to say what cost Beijing is willing to bear in a case involving its corporate royalty and a superpower rivalry. But Mr. Trudeau will want them to know there is a cost for China, too, when he picks up the phone.

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The federal Conservatives are demanding more action from Justin Trudeau on two Canadians detained in China. The Tories say the Prime Minister should call the Chinese President over the detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. The Canadian Press
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