Court Dates for Detained Canadians Announced on Eve of U.S.-China Summit

According to Canadian officials, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the two Canadians detained in China on suspicion of espionage, will be tried in China starting this week. The news of the trial, which comes over two years after the “two Michaels” were first detained, arrived just days before American and Chinese officials are scheduled to meet in Alaska. The duo’s arrest in 2018 is widely regarded as an act of retaliation following the arrest of Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou in Canada at the request of U.S. law enforcement. Bloomberg News’ Kait Bolongaro reported on the announcement of the trials, which will take place separately:

Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig will face their first court hearings on March 19 and March 22 respectively, Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said Wednesday in an emailed statement. “We believe these detentions are arbitrary, and remain deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings,” he said.

The men, an entrepreneur who ran tours to North Korea and a former diplomat, were detained by the Chinese government on national security charges just days after the December 2018 arrest of a top Huawei Technologies Co. executive in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition request.

Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and eldest daughter of its billionaire founder, is back in a British Columbia courtroom this week contesting extradition in an Iran sanctions case. [Source]

The announcement of trial dates for the two Canadians represents an escalatory move by Beijing as top officials gear up to meet with their counterparts in the Biden administration for the first time. While the court date puts pressure directly on Canadian officials, the Biden administration has taken a keen interest in the two Michaels’ case, particularly after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought support from the U.S. at a recent meeting. An article in The Economist earlier this month emphasized the direct role that the U.S. has to play in breaking the Canada-China deadlock:

Canada’s government faces a conundrum: how should it deal with a powerful country that refuses to play by the same rules? Its experience so far suggests that when it comes to hostage diplomacy, liberal democracies with moral scruples are at a disadvantage, for the obvious reason that they don’t take hostages.

Chinese authorities have intimated that the fates of the two Michaels are intertwined with Ms Meng’s. In February Morgan Elliott, Huawei’s vice-president for government relations in Canada, almost said as much in a television interview. “Mr Ren, like any father, wants his daughter home, just as the families of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor want their family,” he said.

It is becoming increasingly clear that to get the two men home Canada will need America’s help. In Ottawa hope flickers that this will be more likely with Joe Biden as president instead of Donald Trump. In December the Wall Street Journal reported that America’s Justice Department was negotiating a possible settlement with Huawei’s lawyers that would free Ms Meng, perhaps with a hefty fine.

Those talks appear to have fizzled before Mr Trump left office, though they may resume. In February Mr Biden promised to work with Canada to get the two Michaels home. It is unclear, however, if America will pursue a legal settlement. “Human beings are not bartering chips,” Mr Biden said. Mr Kovrig’s Kafkaesque nightmare suggests otherwise. [Source]

In Vancouver, the months-long extradition hearing to determine whether Meng can be handed over to authorities in the U.S. has now entered its final few months. Meng faces fraud charges in the U.S. in connection with her alleged lying about Huawei’s dealings in Iran. South China Morning Post’s Ian Young reported the latest updates from the hearing at the Supreme Court of British Columbia:

Meng’s lawyers say Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers acted at the behest of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to covertly obtain evidence to support their fraud case.

But Canadian government lawyers representing US interests in the case said in a filing there was no evidence of US misconduct, and that Canadian police and border agents did not abuse their powers.

[…] The protracted extradition fight may be reaching its end game. This phase of hearings will last until April 1, before a final stage of arguments and committal hearings scheduled for April 26 to May 14, after which Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes will decide whether to release Meng or approve her being sent to the US for trial.

But the final decision on whether to extradite her will be up to Canada’s justice minister, and appeals could drag out the process for years. [Source]

Given the seemingly interminable extradition process in Canada, it remains to be seen whether U.S.-China negotiations might be able to break the deadlock. The Biden administration has signaled that it has put priority on supporingt the interests of allies while negotiating with Beijing. In addition to receiving Trudeau’s request for assistance regarding Kovrig and Spavor, the Biden administration has reportedly told China that normalizing relations with Australia is a precondition to any substantial improvement in U.S.-China relations. But U.S. officials have been quick to emphasize not to expect concrete results from the meeting in Alaska this week.

In the meantime, as China-Canada relations have continued to plummet, Canadian public opinion on China has followed. Bloomberg News’ Kait Bolongaro reported on a recent poll of Canadians finding that just 14%  hold favorable views of China, with a large majority citing the detention of the Michaels as a key reason:

More than three quarters of respondents in an Angus Reid Institute survey released Tuesday said relations can’t improve while China holds two Canadians on national security charges. It locked the pair up within days of the 2018 arrest of a top Huawei Technologies Co. executive in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition request.

A similar proportion of Canadians said they believe the Chinese government’s actions against Uighur Muslims constitute genocide. Lawmakers in the House of Commons unanimously backed a non-binding motion on the issue last month, increasing pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to take a harder line with its second-largest trading partner on human rights.

[…] The poll found that only 11% of respondents would support fostering closer trade ties with China, and just 14% held a favorable view of the Asian nation. The latter result matches a record low set in a similar survey last year. By comparison, Pew Research Center polling 15 years ago found that nearly three fifths of Canadians held a positive view of Beijing. [Source]

The National Post reported that the same poll found a majority of people support a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic games, currently set to be held in Beijing. With popular discontent towards Beijing at a record high, Prime Minister Trudeau’s government faces growing pressure to toughen its stance towards China. Last month, the Canadian House of Commons voted unanimously in support of recognizing China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as genocide, but the government has resisted adopting that designation as its official position. This week, Canadian broadcaster CBC reported on comments from former Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who described Canada as caught in a new U.S.-China cold war, while emphasizing that the country needs to do more to protect its resources:

Former prime minister Stephen Harper says the world order has returned to a kind of Cold War between two superpowers, this time between the United States and China.

And while middle-power countries like Canada are part of the rivalry, Harper told a defence conference on Friday they lack the economic and security clout to do much on their own to shape the outcome.

[…] For Canada, Harper said one challenge is to prevent state-owned Chinese companies from controlling our resources sector, as his government took steps to prevent.

And he said there is no way Canada should allow Chinese technology giants like Huawei or ZTE to be involved in core data and tech services, including the development of 5G wireless networks.

The current Liberal government has delayed a decision on Huawei’s involvement in 5G here, although Canada’s allies in the so-called Five-Eyes intelligence alliance have banned the company from participating. [Source]


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