OTTAWA — The dilemma Canada finds itself in over its arrest of top Chinese business executive Meng Wanzhou is a result of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “naive approach” to China, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer insisted Thursday.
Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig were detained this week in Beijing on suspicion of “engaging in activities that endanger the national security” of China.
The men were taken into custody only days after Canada arrested Meng on a request from American authorities who want her extradited to the United States on suspicion of bank fraud, related to an alleged attempt to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran. Meng is the chief financial officer of technology giant Huawei and the daughter of its founder.
“We now find ourselves in a situation where we have Canadian citizens on foreign soil detained and a government that has pursued a policy of appeasement, putting us in a position where we don’t have the leverage that we might otherwise have,” Scheer said in Ottawa. “I believe that this situation demonstrates that Justin Trudeau’s naive approach to relations with China isn’t working.”
Scheer called on the Trudeau government to quickly send a “very high-level message” to China and to “unequivocally denounce” any type of repercussions on Canadians abroad.
Canada’s mishandling of China, in Scheer’s view, includes Trudeau’s indecision on whether Huawei should be permitted to supply technology for Canada’s next generation 5G networks. The U.S. alleges Huawei is an organ of Chinese intelligence and should be banned.
Scheer’s criticisms come with Ottawa snagged in a delicate and deepening diplomatic crisis with an outraged superpower, which also happens to be Canada’s second-largest trading partner.
Since taking office in late 2015, the federal Liberals have worked hard to broaden Canada’s economic relationship with China while also seeking commitments from Beijing on issues related to the environment as well as labour and gender rights.
Following Meng’s Dec. 1 arrest, Beijing warned Ottawa of severe consequences and loudly demanded she be released. Trudeau has explained Meng’s arrest was part of an independent legal process, separate from politics.
This week, Chinese authorities rounded up Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat who is on a leave from his job, and Spavor, who runs a non-governmental organization that facilitates sports, cultural, tourism and business exchanges with North Korea.
Canada had still not been granted consular access Thursday to the detained Canadians, said a government source, speaking on the condition of anonymity citing the sensitivity of the case. Experts say the men are likely facing harsh conditions and are under significant pressure to confess to the allegations against them.
With Ottawa weighing its options, there have been other wrinkles — including comments by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Questions about the legitimacy of the Meng case surfaced earlier this week when Trump mused that he would be willing to intervene on her behalf if it would help him strike a trade deal with China.
Meng’s extradition process is before Canadian courts, but the final decision on whether to send her to the U.S. lies with federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Technically, Wilson-Raybould could take the extraordinary step of preventing Meng’s extradition, a move that could anger the U.S. In doing so, the Canadian government could choose to defend the move by highlighting Trump’s remark as evidence the case against Meng is politically motivated.
It’s also likely China will make offers to Ottawa that it will release Kovrig and Spavor in exchange for Meng’s freedom, according to a former Canadian ambassador in Beijing.
Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as top envoy in China from 2012 to 2016, said he was closely involved in a somewhat similar case a few years ago.
In 2014, Canada arrested Chinese businessman Su Bin, a Chinese national who had permanent residency in Canada, following an extradition request by the U.S.
He was eventually extradited to the U.S., where he pleaded guilty in 2016 to a criminal conspiracy to steal U.S. military secrets. Su was sentenced to 46 months in prison.
A month after Su’s arrest in Canada, Chinese authorities detained Canadians Julia and Kevin Garratt and accused them of spying and stealing military secrets.
The Garratts had spent three decades living in China, where they ran a coffee shop and did Christian aid work. China eventually released the Garratts after a two-year ordeal.
“It was clear — and I was involved directly in the discussions — the Chinese wanted to make a swap between the Garratts and Su Bin,” Saint-Jacques said. “We met many times. I repeated that there was nothing we could do, we were bound by the extradition treaty between Canada and the U.S. All this to no avail — they would not listen, they just kept putting pressure.”
Andy Blatchford and Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press