The release of two Canadian hostages by China has ended a lengthy feud between the two countries, but experts caution that the saga foreshadows a deepening rift between them.
After facing charges of espionage and spending more than 1,000 days in detention, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were set free by Chinese authorities on Sept. 25. Accompanied by Canadian Ambassador to China Dominic Barton, the pair arrived home early the next morning.
The two had been detained after Canada’s arrest of the Huawei Technologies Co chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟), who also arrived home after she and the US Department of Justice reached a deferred prosecution agreement.
The surprise releases ended a blockage that tested the diplomatic resolve of Ottawa, which found itself caught in the middle of a broader feud between Beijing and Washington.
However, experts have said that China’s increasingly hardline approach — and the brazenness with which it has been willing to engage in “hostage diplomacy” — should be taken as a warning by other nations.
“China was sending a message not just to Canada, but to every other country in the world that they take hostages. And if you step out of line from their policies or don’t toe the line the way Beijing has instructed you to do, then they will take retaliatory action and kidnap your citizens,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “This is the behavior of a medieval kingdom — not a 2021 superpower.”
Beijing has maintained that the arrest of the Canadians was unconnected to Meng, but it has suggested that their fates were linked.
Beijing gave no legal explanation for the Canadians’ release or the timing of it, only later saying that the two men had applied for and been granted bail on unspecified “medical grounds.”
The detention of Meng was “a political frame-up and persecution against a Chinese citizen, an act designed to hobble Chinese high-tech companies,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) said on Monday last week. “Canada should draw lessons and act in ways that serve its own interests.”
In China, the focus has been squarely on Meng. State media coverage of the hero’s welcome barely — if at all — mentioned the Canadians’ cases, and discussions on social media were quickly censored.
As she arrived on a chartered airplane to a red carpet and “Welcome home” on Shenzhen’s tallest skyscraper, the executive’s return was credited to the “unremitting efforts” of the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) government.
Before Canada found itself the target of China’s outrage, the two countries had been on the verge of negotiating a free-trade agreement. Canadian companies, spurned by protectionist measures in the US under then-US president Donald Trump, had been eager to find new markets for their heavy oil, metallurgical coal, timber and agricultural products.
However, Ottawa’s refusal to cave to demands for Meng’s release made it difficult for the two countries to move forward in normalizing relations, McCuaig-Johnson said.
“Canada wasn’t seen as giving China what it wanted,” she said. “As a result, Canada is still likely to be frozen out of a lot of activities in China.”
The headaches that Canadian companies might face in the coming months come against the backdrop of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) recent moves to reshape China’s economy and his government’s aggressive approach to foreign technology companies.
In addition to the challenges of a middle-power country squaring off against an economic powerhouse, Canada’s exclusion from the AUKUS pact complicates its ability to exercise influence in the region.
McCuaig-Johnson believes that Ottawa is likely to ban Huawei’s 5G infrastructure in the coming months, which could improve its standing among allies — but would probably further frustrate China.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the frosty relationship,” she said.
Even without the broader geopolitical backdrop, there is little popular support in Canada for re-engaging with Beijing.
Canadian opinions of China have dimmed in the past few years and major political parties have made being tough on China part of their platforms, University of Toronto political science professor Lynette Ong said.
“Even if the government wanted relations to go back to the way they were before, they would be reprimanded by the opposition, as well as by the electorate,” she said.
Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau admitted as much on Sunday last week to CBC News, when he said that Canada’s “eyes are wide open” regarding its next steps with China, adding that his government planned to “coexist,” “compete,” “cooperate,” and “challenge.”
The speed with which China released the two captives is unlikely to help normalize relations, because it only underscores the reality that the two men were being held hostage, Ong said.
“Given China’s insistence the case of the two Michaels was not a hostage exchange — that they violated a Chinese law — it seems they would have done more to maintain that idea,” she said. “But the timing of their release certainly does suggest China has lifted the veil of the facade.”
The US also appeared eager to avoid the perception that it had made a prisoner exchange agreement.
On Monday last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki rejected the suggestion, saying that the Canadians’ cases had been discussed — but not negotiated — in a call between US President Joe Biden and Xi weeks earlier.
Psaki said that the deferred prosecution agreement with Meng was an independent action by the US Department of Justice.
“This is a law enforcement matter,” she said. “There is no link.”
While relations between China and Canada are likely to remain chilled, China’s actions have spurred other nations to take more defensive positions.
“China is now feeling the heat of Western democracies forming alliances and trying to contain its rise,” she said, pointing to the group of allies gathered outside the courts while the two Canadians were facing charges, as well as a joint declaration condemning arbitrary detention.
“They got Ms Meng in the end — but that win might have come at a huge cost,” Psaki added.
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