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A news report on Joe Biden appears on a television screen in Hong Kong on Nov. 8, 2020.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

Seven hundred days after Chinese authorities locked up Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the election of a new U.S. president has given rise to new hope that the men could be freed – and new cautions that those hopes are faint at best.

The two Canadians were seized by Chinese state security agents on Dec. 10, 2018. Monday marks 700 days that the men – widely called hostages – have been held by a Chinese government that has demanded the release of Meng Wanzhou. The Huawei executive was arrested at the Vancouver airport at the request of the United States, which accuses her of bank fraud related to violations of sanctions against Iran. Ms. Meng, who has been released on bail but must stay in the Vancouver area, has maintained her innocence and is fighting extradition.

Opinion: For the U.S.-Canada relationship, Biden’s win changes everything – and nothing at all

The arrests have thrust Canada into the midst of tensions between the U.S. and China that have intensified during the Donald Trump presidency.

The transition to Joe Biden as U.S. president offers a potential moment to salve some of the frayed ties between the two superpowers, even as a looming change of power in Washington opens new avenues for Ottawa to advocate for the incarcerated men. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has frequently raised Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor in discussions with Mr. Trump. He is expected to do the same with Mr. Biden.

The issue of the detentions was “top of the agenda” and Ottawa would be working with its “American friends” to bring the two Canadians home, Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Sunday during an interview on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live. “We have made sure that we have the international community with us to make the case. And we will continue clearly with a new U.S. partner, which will be as engaged,” he said.

Beijing might even consider freeing the two men as a conciliatory gesture to Mr. Biden, said Kaiser Kuo, a China commentator who hosts the Sinica Podcast, which discusses current affairs in the country. It’s a “great time to show you’d welcome a significant lowering of the temperature,” he wrote on Twitter this weekend. He suggested Beijing might also consider reopening the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and reinstating visas for the U.S. journalists it has evicted.

Conversely, a Biden administration could withdraw the U.S. prosecution against Ms. Meng, which would serve to set her free.

“The road to freedom for Kovrig and Spavor may well run through D.C.,” said Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

But for the incoming Biden administration, the incarceration of the Michaels “is only one of many issues, and certainly not the foremost,” he said.

Indeed, Mr. Biden has signalled that he intends to maintain an adversarial relationship with China. He has labelled China a threat, called President Xi Jinping a “thug” and pledged to co-ordinate with allies to confront China. His presidential campaign accused Beijing of “genocide” against Muslims in its northwestern Xinjiang region.

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor have also put on display the exercise of justice in China, where the courts fall under political control and even those awaiting trial are held in punitive conditions for long periods of time. The two Canadians have been intensively interrogated, held in cells with lights that are never dimmed and kept for long periods of time without contact to the outside world. Chinese authorities denied them basic monthly half-hour consular visits – including through video calls – from January to October, citing the pandemic as the reason.

Mr. Biden has domestic reasons to keep pressure on China.

“Capitol Hill is more hawkish on China than Trump,” said Bill Bishop, a respected China watcher who writes the Sinocism newsletter. Being “tough on China is perhaps the one issue with massive bipartisan support.”

The U.S. judicial investigation of Huawei, which led to charges against the company for sanctions violations and misappropriation of intellectual property, began while Mr. Biden was vice-president under Barack Obama. Even though the warrant for Ms. Meng’s arrest was issued with Mr. Trump in the White House, “I doubt a Biden administration would suddenly drop the extradition request,” Mr. Bishop said.

Still, there may be value for Ottawa in working with a Biden White House as it formulates a broader international approach toward China.

“What might work, but it’s longer term, would be U.S. support of, or leadership of, a more united global response against such behaviour – especially hostage diplomacy,” said Phil Calvert, a former Canadian diplomat who has served in Beijing.

The U.S. “could really play a strong role in holding China to account for this and other actions.”

China has arrested citizens of other countries, including most recently Australia, in the midst of diplomatic disputes.

But the Canadian government has already sought to co-ordinate condemnation of China over the incarceration of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, an effort that has prompted dozens of statements of support by other countries. The European Union mentioned the two men directly to China’s Mr. Xi. There has been little evidence that such criticism has altered China’s position.

Mr. Trudeau, meanwhile, has vowed not to intervene in the extradition process for Ms. Meng.

The election of Mr. Biden, then, has only served to underscore the fact that, 700 days after the Canadians were first detained, an obvious path to their release remains elusive.

Barring an unexpected detente between Washington and Beijing, “the prospects for freeing our Michaels will be limited to the courts or the Minister of Justice” in Canada, said Mr. Houlden.

“Sadly, and I hope I am wrong, there will be no release for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor without the departure of Meng Wanzhou from Canada.”

Michael Kovrig has been in Chinese detention since December 2018, and has been even more cut-off from the outside world since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in China. His wife, Vina Nadjibulla, is spearheading efforts to have him released and returned home to Canada.

The Globe and Mail

With a report from Janice Dickson