The advent of the COVID19 pandemic puts fresh pressure on the Canadian government to end the impasse that continues to hold two Canadians imprisoned as hostages in a Chinese jail. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have now been in prison on trumped-up charges for over a year. Meanwhile, Meng Wenzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei and a close buddy of the Chinese regime, whose detention sparked this incident, is in house-arrest in Vancouver, awaiting the outcome of extradition proceedings launched by the United States government in 2018. It’s an ugly story, with no end in sight.
Let’s acknowledge that the Canadian justice system has let everyone down by its dilatory action on what should have been a straightforward extradition case. Meng’s legal counsel has also been surprisingly passive, playing a slow game inappropriate to the circumstances. Let’s also recognize that, when the world is in crisis mode over COVID19, we need to clear the decks of other issues that can’t be allowed to fester forever.
Most of all, the Chinese and Canadian governments should realize what would happen if one or both of the two Michaels succumbed to illness while incarcerated in grim conditions amid an epidemic of unknown proportions in China. No Canadian government could avoid a strong reaction in this scenario that would leave diplomatic, trade and other relations with China shattered until at least the departure from power of President Xi, who has orchestrated this farce. The prudent step is to act now before circumstances take control of an already unfortunate situation.
What’s the scenario? It’s essentially the playbook of a hostage exchange. First, Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne should contact Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (or even fly to Washington to impress upon him the determination of our views) and ask the U.S. to drop its request for Meng’s extradition. He should tell Pompeo that if the request is not dropped within a week, allowing the Canadian government to release Meng, we will act unilaterally to end the extradition proceedings. The obvious preferred option is American agreement to our plan. That offers the U.S. government scope to express appreciation to China during the COVID19 crisis, with the added advantage of preserving the fig-leaf of Canadian respect for due process.
The U.S. government will probably not consent. But it has no claim to moral suasion on the Meng case, nor can the Trump Administration argue the need for Allied solidarity, given its dismal performance in the COVID19 outbreak. Most Canadians are fed up with this case and want it ended. This issue will quickly pass at a time when the U.S. Government has lots of issues on its plate, including an uncertain relationship with China and an election on the horizon.
As for Canada-China relations, it’s doubtful that they will return to any position of friendship while Xi is in power, particularly while the current Chinese Ambassador to Canada wanders around offering Canadians fresh evidence about the lies and odious deeds of authoritarian governments.
Second, Champagne should then contact his opposite number in China to negotiate the deal: Meng for the two Michaels, with the exchange taking place in a third-country airport, close to China (Thailand, Vietnam , South Korea). Champagne could ask for the release of other imprisoned Canadians at the same time; China might well be prepared to rid itself of bilateral problems it no longer needs. It would be inappropriate to mention Huawei or the impending decision on companies allowed to participate in Canada’s 5G network. That’s a different and separate issue.
The Canadian government needs to supply an aircraft for the delivery of Meng and the flight back to Canada for the two Michaels, and the aircraft should be equipped with full medical facilities. The Canadian side should consist of Canada’s senior consular officer and appropriate medical staff.
The Canadian side should think carefully about every ramification of the scenario and forget about the costs. This is no time for the amateur second-guessers in the PMO; it’s time for grown-up engagement, based on a realistic evaluation of the dangers of the current situation.
When it’s over, there should be no statements of thanks or appreciation. We might be tempted to comment on the origins of this despicable incident, but this isn’t the time. Nor is it time to express wishes for better relations with China. The Prime Minister will simply want to note that we did our job to free the two Michaels, and we are glad that they have safely returned.
As for Canada-China relations, it’s doubtful that they will return to any position of friendship while Xi is in power, particularly while the current Chinese Ambassador to Canada wanders around offering Canadians fresh evidence about the lies and odious deeds of authoritarian governments. Freeing the two Michaels might, indeed, prove to be a useful starting point for better relations. But what we really need as these cases are resolved is a serious reappraisal of where Canada and the world want to go in its relations with China. We have seen the future, and it has changed our views.