Canada must re-engage on diplomacy with China, but also learn lessons, experts say
TORONTO -- While the saga regarding the detainment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor by Chinese authorities may be at an end, the political fallout between the two countries as a result of it remains unclear.
The two returned to Canada early Saturday morning after spending over 1,000 days in Chinese custody on espionage charges that were largely viewed as a retaliatory response to Canada's arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant related to the company's business dealings in Iran.
While China has consistently denied that the cases were in any way connected, earlier on Friday, a B.C. judge discharged the extradition matter against Meng after U.S. Justice Department officials reached a deal to resolve the criminal charges against her, allowing Meng to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement and leave Canada, under certain terms.
Meng's arrest at Vancouver International Airport in December 2018 spurred a years-long major geopolitical case, with economic sanctions being traded between Canada and China as the relationship between both nations entered a deep freeze.
However, now that Kovrig and Spavor have been set free and Meng has returned to China, experts suggest that the relationship between the two countries may begin to thaw.
Jeremy Kinsman, former Canadian ambassador to Russia and the U.K., suggested that the release of the two Michaels and Meng's deferred prosecution agreement was a way for both countries to appear to come out as winners.
"The devil is really in appearances and making sure that appearances don't favour one side rather than the other. That both come out, if not as total winners, that neither comes out as a total loser," Kinsman told CTV News Channel on Saturday. "I think that's the principal thing. I think that's what was achieved here."
He added that it was also a matter of saving face for China.
"You can't feel comfortable if the opinion of you as a country, and indeed by extension as a people, is declining," Kinsman said. "There's only so much you can do to convince your people that you're right and they're victims of other people's prejudice."
Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat, called the release of the two Michaels a triumph in diplomacy, but said Canada needs to do more to end the practice of nations arresting foreign citizens for political gain.
"We put together a big diplomatic effort of those in the free world to basically say, no, this is wrong, you've gone too far," Robertson said in an interview with CTV News Channel on Saturday. "This cannot happen again. To me, the lesson of this is that we've got to add teeth to another Canadian [declaration] on arbitrary detentions that we unveiled last February."
Canada launched the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations in February. It has since been endorsed by over 60 countries across the globe.
"I think that we need something to persuade countries that want to practice hostage diplomacy," he said. "China is probably the worst example, but there are others who do the same thing."
Scott McKnight, a postdoctoral fellow of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, said this ordeal should be a wake-up call for what Canada can expect from China in the future.
"I think we should be very cautious in our assessment going forward that this may be the type of China that we're going to have to deal with going forward as China only becomes increasingly relevant and economically powerful in the world," McKnight told CTV News Channel on Friday, after Meng had reached a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S., but before news broke of the two Michaels being released.
"We should also recognize here the bigger, maybe broader lesson, which is a more assertive China; a China that's not afraid to use various instruments, some nice some not so nice, in trying to achieve its policy aims," he said. "This should be a sobering moment for Canadian expectations of the People's Republic of China."
China, which is Canada's second-largest trading partner, issued a number of sanctions on Canadian exports since Meng's 2018 arrest. Regardless of any tensions that may remain over the case, Robertson said China is too large to ignore, and trade must resume.
"You never forget it, but you put it behind you and you go forward," he said. "We've got to have a relationship with China. We've got a lot of citizens of Chinese descent in this country. We will continue to bring in migrants from China. So we've got to re-engage now with China."
Legal analyst Dina Doll pointed out on Saturday that Huawei still faces a 16-count indictment in the Eastern District of New York, however, she said it will likely be a strictly corporate case that doesn't involve individual citizens being detained.
"Diplomacy and trade has been really fractured against the United States and China in the last few years, and unfortunately Canada as well," Doll said. "If Huawei's indictment does go forward and there is a conviction -- they're maybe the crown jewel company of China -- how would China react to that? It's very unclear, and so it will be interesting to see how that plays out."