By Charles Burton
Since December last year, relations between Canada and China have deteriorated to the extent that the major aspirational interests of each country in the other have gone to dust for the foreseeable future.
Canada’s primary interest in China is increased access to the Chinese market with a view to promoting Canadian prosperity and reducing Canada’s overwhelming economic dependence on the United States under Donald Trump. In return for such trade concessions, China expects removal of Canadian restrictions on Chinese state investment in Canada’s natural resources and energy sectors, removal of restrictions on Chinese state acquisition of Canadian high tech companies, an extradition treaty so that China can repatriate Chinese nationals who fall afoul of the Peoples’ Republic authorities and flee abroad, and – crucially – Canada’s adoption of Huawei 5G technology.
The telco giant Huawei is already well integrated into the Canadian telecommunications network. Two major service providers already have extensive installation of Huawei’s equipment (Bell at about 60% and Telus at close to 100%). The cost to Bell and Telus of retooling to accommodate an alternative 5G provider (such as Ericsson) would be measured in the billions of dollars and result in increased cost to Canadian consumers who already pay some of the highest mobile phone rates in the world. But as North American telecommunications are highly integrated, the US has urged Canada in the strongest terms to steer clear of Huawei 5G.
Concerns have also been expressed by Canada’s intelligence-sharing partners in the Five Eyes alliance that have banned the Huawei technology (like New Zealand) in their own nations due to well-grounded security fears.
In August 2018, the US issued an arrest warrant for Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO and likely successor to her father as CEO. Under the terms of the Canada-US Extradition Treaty, and at the behest of the US, Meng was arrested at Vancouver Airport on December 1. It is a mystery as to why officials in Beijing authorised her foreign travel plans without consulting the list of countries that have extradition treaties with the United States – and not sent her elsewhere.
Soon after, in evident retaliation, two Canadian citizens in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were arbitrarily arrested without charge by agents of the Ministry of State Security for prolonged brutal interrogation in a “black jail.” The Chinese government is evidently in gross violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations by attempting to induce Kovrig to reveal (under duress) classified information that he was privy to in his previous capacity as a diplomat employed in the Political Section of the Canadian embassy to China.
Spavor, a fluent Korean speaker but with limited Chinese, is one of the very few foreigners who has established a degree of rapport with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. Does the PRC regime perceive some sort of Canadian-coordinated deep conspiracy to draw North Korea away from China’s orbit, coordinated by Spavor? Based on past precedents, both Spavor and Kovrig may be forced to make forced false confessions broadcast on Chinese television. We may soon find out.
When the arrests of Spavor and Kovrig did not lead to Canada releasing Huawei’s imprisoned CFO, the PRC government expressed its displeasure. Robert Schellenberg a Canadian accused of being involved in attempted smuggling of 500 lbs of Chinese amphetamines to Australia in 2014 has had his original 15 year sentence increased to a death penalty.
In the meantime, China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, made a disastrous attempt at public diplomacy when he asserted in an op-ed piece that the Canadian Government arrested Meng for reasons of “white supremacy.” This assertion, well outside the bounds of acceptable diplomatic discourse, could well lead to Lu’s expulsion from Canada.
It is remarkable that China does not understand that their intimidating tactics and ‘death threat diplomacy’ have the opposite effect to what is intended. Canada has rallied its like-minded allies to denounce China’s undiplomatic behaviour on the basis that China could use such thuggish devices in future diplomatic disputes with other nations. So far the US, Britain, the Netherlands, Estonia and many other countries have signed on. But some have not, including New Zealand. This is despite Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday in an attempt to shore up support for its condemnation of China’s recent diplomatic actions.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson has attempted to diminish Canada’s rallying of allies to denounce China’s appalling responses to the Meng arrest, likely indicating that this tactic is working in Canada’s favour. That no country has taken the Chinese side in this dispute is very telling.
The bottom line is that Meng could face a lifetime in prison if she is extradited to the United States to face multiple serious charges of fraud, each of which carries a sentence of up to thirty years. Under such circumstances, despite the fact that she has family in China, would Meng seek leniency by providing the US government with information about Huawei’s relationship with China’s security and intelligence apparatus?
Ultimately, the Chinese ambassador’s threats of dire consequences if Canada follows through on the extradition of Meng ring hollow. Whether her lawyers are able to successfully argue that she is not eligible for extradition to the US under Canadian law, or whether she ends up in court in New York, this unprecedented crisis in Canada-China relations can only be healed once Meng Wanzhou is no longer on Canadian soil. This may be a very long time off.
As Canada is in an election year, the political costs to the Liberal Government’s re-election prospects of acceding to Chinese demands on Huawei 5G, removal of restrictions on Chinese state investment in Canada, approving more export of Canadian high-tech to military-associated Chinese state enterprises, or working out the terms of an extradition treaty are too great to be considered for the foreseeable future.
But however it turns out, irreparable damage to China’s reputation in Canada has been done. Any naive assumptions Canadians may have had about the prospects of the Chinese Communist Party coming into compliance with the norms of international morality in years ahead have been thoroughly dashed by the severe mistreatment of Kovrig, Spavor, and Schellenberg. China’s future ability to co-opt Canadian policymakers to support its interests have been seriously debased.
Charles Burton is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario and is a former Counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing.