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'A geopolitical bonfire': Canada feels heat of US-China trade war after Huawei arrest

Thomas Peter, Reuters | A paramilitary police officer cycles past the Canadian embassy in Beijing on December 12.

In the two weeks since a Huawei tech executive was arrested in Canada at the request of the United States, two other Canadians have been detained in China. Are Ottawa’s fears of becoming a proxy in the trade war between the US and China bearing out?

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Canada’s foreign ministry on Thursday confirmed China’s detention of Michael Spavor, a Canadian national and China-based business consultant who facilitates trips to North Korea. That news came three days after Ottawa was informed that Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave working as a senior adviser with International Crisis Group, had been arrested in Beijing. China suspects both men of “engaging in activities that threatened China’s national security”, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, without clarifying whether the two cases are related. The accusation is the sort generally levied by China in affairs of espionage.

Some observers believe the two men's fates are related to the Vancouver arrest of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, on December 1.

“The Chinese have a track record of retaliation in situations like this,” Brian Kingston, VP of international policy at the Business Council of Canada, told the New York Times. “Our response has to be that retaliation is pointless ... that this is not a Canada-China issue. We are responding to a US request.”

Asked whether Meng’s arrest and Kovrig’s subsequent detention an ocean apart might be merely coincidence, Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s former ambassador to Beijing, was clear. “In China, there are no coincidences,” Saint-Jacques told the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster. “If they want to send you a message, they will send you a message.”

Kovrig served under Saint-Jacques as a political officer at the Canadian embassy in Beijing from 2014 to 2016 before taking a leave from Canada’s foreign service after his two-year posting to remain in the country because, Kovrig told the ambassador, “he loves China so much”.

‘Revenge’

“I personally believe that if Canada extradites Meng to the US, China’s revenge will be far worse than detaining a Canadian,” Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin said in a video posted to the pro-government Chinese daily’s website on Wednesday. Hu said Canada “must do more to restore [Meng’s] freedom” beyond the businesswoman’s release on $10 million Canadian (€6.6 million) bail on Tuesday. “Although Canada is a US ally, it should not get deeply drawn into the China-US game. It’s in Canada’s best interests to try and remain neutral,” Hu said.

Canada is ostensibly already suffering collateral damage from its weighty neighbour’s tensions with China, despite Ottawa’s insistence that Meng’s arrest was unrelated to the trade spat.

“I can assure everyone that we are a country [with] an independent judiciary,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a tech conference in Montreal last week. “And they took this decision without any political involvement or interference.”

But the White House may have compromised that Canadian line of reasoning. In an Oval Office interview on Tuesday, Donald Trump told Reuters that he would intervene in the US Justice Department’s case against Meng if it would serve national security interests or help secure a trade deal with China that he called “the largest trade deal ever made”. In explicitly turning the Huawei exec into a bargaining chip, the US leader seemed only to confirm Chinese suspicions that the affair is merely a pressure tactic Washington is using against Beijing.

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, quickly appeared to take aim at Trump’s comments. “Our extradition partners should not seek to politicise the extradition process or use it for ends other than the pursuit of justice and following the rule of law,” Freeland told a press conference the day after Trump’s remarks were disclosed.

But Ottawa’s assurances may well not reverberate as loudly as comments from the US president. Trump’s assertions have “really complicated” the situation for Canada, Fred Bild, a former Canadian diplomat and Asian studies professor at the University of Montreal, believes. “It’s sometimes difficult to persuade the Chinese that we are not just acting on behalf of the United States. And this has reinforced notions that Canada is just a pawn,” Bild told Agence France-Presse.

Stabbed in the back

“The American president has now poured buckets of gasoline on what was already a geopolitical bonfire,” columnist Terry Glavin wrote Thursday in Canada’s Ottawa Citizen and National Post newspapers. Glavin’s assessment of his country’s current predicament was grim: “Canadians are standing alone at the edge of an abyss, with a Chinese noose around our necks and American shivs sticking out of our backs.”

Canada is also worried about the Huawei affair’s potential economic repercussions.

Norway offers a cautionary tale. In 2010, China decided to drastically cut back on its imports of Norwegian salmon after the Norwegian Nobel Committee handed the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in Oslo. Norwegian producers waited seven years to see the Chinese market reopen to their salmon.

Experts quoted by the Global Times have raised the prospect of a decline in Chinese tourism to Canada. After Beijing approved Canada as a tourist destination for Chinese citizens in 2010, the number of tourists crossing the Pacific to visit rose by 20 percent per year, reaching almost 700,000 in 2017 – a figure Ottawa had been hoping to double by 2021.

(With AFP and REUTERS)

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