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Jim Nickel, centre-right, charge d’affaires of the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, and William 'Bill' Klein, centre-left, acting deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, stand among other diplomats outside Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court in Beijing on March 22, 2021.

CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/Reuters

A delegation of Canadian diplomats walked into a court reception hall in China on Monday morning, demanding to be let inside, while dozens of diplomats from other countries stood waiting on a sidewalk outside.

It was an image of international support for Michael Kovrig, one of two Canadians imprisoned since shortly after the Vancouver airport arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Mr. Kovrig was put on trial Monday on espionage charges that carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. A similar trial took place on Friday for Michael Spavor, another Canadian seized by state security in parallel with Mr. Kovrig.

But some 15 minutes after the trial for Mr. Kovrig began, a court worker emerged to say China would conduct the trial in secret, citing its nature as a state security case.

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“Access is being denied,” Canada’s charge d’affaires in Beijing, Jim Nickel said, calling China in contravention of its international commitments.

Mr. Kovrig has “been arbitrarily detained and now we see that the court process itself is not transparent. We are very troubled by this.”

Twenty-seven diplomats from 22 countries, in addition to the European Union, attended the trial Monday in Beijing. “The United States stands shoulder to shoulder with Canada in calling for the immediate release of their two citizens from arbitrary detention,” said Bill Klein, a senior U.S. diplomat. The U.S., Mr. Nickel said, has pledged to treat Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor “as if they were American citizens.”

But China’s refusal to let diplomats into the trials has provided a strikingly tangible image of Canadian – and international – impotence toward China, one that underscores need for a new approach toward Beijing, observers say.

Ottawa has repeatedly called for the release of Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, saying their detention is arbitrary. But the Canadian government could not even enter the courtroom to watch the proceedings against Mr. Spavor.

Instead, as the court did its work in secret – China says all national security cases are held behind closed doors – Canadian diplomats could not say for certain whether Mr. Spavor was inside. They could do little more than stare at the outside of a concrete court building and express disappointment. It was not until Mr. Spavor’s lawyer emerged little more than two hours later that they could confirm the Canadian had been present – and that the trial had already been concluded.

Both Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, charged with violating state security, have become examples of what critics call China’s exercise of hostage diplomacy, a charge Beijing denies.

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Yet their treatment in detention – which has included lengthy periods of being interrogated and held incommunicado, despite Canadian protests – has also brought into vivid relief Ottawa’s position relative to China under President Xi Jinping.

“Canada is helpless to deal with China on its own over the Michaels’ trials,” said John Higginbotham, who from 1989 to 1994 was commissioner for Canada in Hong Kong, a role equivalent to an ambassador. “Xi Jinping is riding a tiger of bellicosity toward the West, and dare not show weakness internationally now.”

It is a fate that is hardly Canada’s alone, as countries around the world grapple with a rising superpower whose leadership has declared itself disinclined to listen to others – no matter their relevant strength.

China is unapologetic and unswerving, and “that’s just reality of how China is trying to put forward its newfound strength,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, director of the Indo-Pacific Program and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. “That is coming hand in hand with their rise. And we need to recognize that.”

It was Mr. Xi, after all, who said last year: “The East is rising, and the West is declining,” a belief that has undergirded a hardening of views in Beijing, particularly toward foreign critics.

Hours before Mr. Spavor went on trial Friday, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, dressed down U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at a meeting in Anchorage. “The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” Mr. Yang said. China’s history, he said to widespread applause at home, “will show that one can only cause damage to himself if he wants to strangle or suppress the Chinese people.”

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China’s leadership has grown increasingly confident in its management of its own affairs, buoyed by its ability to avoid disaster in navigating the health and economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, while conquering extreme poverty at home and quelling what it sees as insurrectionist forces in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Where Western democracies have been roiled by the turmoil of protests and Brexit, China’s security state and economic growth have maintained calm. Mr. Xi believes China is central to an immutable historical trend that is restoring to Beijing a global primacy it enjoyed for much of the past few thousand years. Indeed, “the modern world is experiencing great changes unseen in a century,” he has said.

It’s meant Beijing has paid little heed to foreign denunciation of its mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang, or to its high-speed abrogation of political liberties in Hong Kong. The U.S., Chinese leaders have pointedly said to critics in Washington and elsewhere, has its own problems.

“There has been a global power shift that has seen a much more powerful China,” said Phil Calvert, a former Canadian diplomat who has served in Beijing and is now a senior fellow with the China Institute of the University of Alberta.

He advocates a new approach for Ottawa, one that dispatches what he calls “the old myths: that we have a special relationship with China because of Norman Bethune or wheat sales in the sixties, for example, or that you can’t say anything sensitive out of fear of offending the Chinese side.”

Better, he said, “to be hard-headed in advancing and protecting Canada’s interests.” In particular, it is to Ottawa’s advantage to join forces with other advanced democracies, he said.

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The Canadian government has, however, been reluctant to move from rhetoric to action with China.

Take the Canadian-led declaration against arbitrary detention that received support from more than 50 countries. The declaration condemns hostage diplomacy, but is bereft of enforcement language.

“None of this really matters if there’s not really strong co-ordinated action,” said Mr. Berkshire Miller. What is needed is “that we agree in concert with very key and influential allies to, as a group, make penalties, make consequences for these actions.”

At the moment, “the Chinese are saying, ‘We are going to call your bluff that you can actually get these countries on board to collectively push back in a meaningful way against us.’”

The trial for Michael Spavor took only two hours with no Canadian witnesses in the court and no information released by Chinese authorities. Jim Nickel, the Deputy Head of Mission at the Canadian embassy, was denied access and criticized the ongoing Chinese detention of Mr. Spavor and Michael Kovrig. The Globe and Mail

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