The whiplash release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from Chinese detention hours after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was allowed to return home could signal a new beginning in the Canada-China relationship, expert say.
But those experts warn the situation is not so simple, with many obstacles in the way of mending fences after years of frosty relations between the two countries.
“(The release of Kovrig and Spavor) is a good news story, and we should celebrate it as such,” said Yves Tiberghien, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia.
“There’s nevertheless a long road ahead, and where it gets complicated is addressing the rest of the relationship, which already after this is nevertheless very much a delicate situation.”
Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor freed from China after Meng Wanzhou released: Trudeau
Meng, who was arrested at Vancouver’s airport in December 2018 at the request of the United States, was released from house arrest in Vancouver on Friday and returned home to China the same day after securing a deal to drop U.S. charges against her.
As part of the new deferred prosecution agreement, Meng plead not guilty to charges that she committed fraud by misleading the HSBC bank about the company’s business dealings in Iran.
Hours after Meng left Canada, chief Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Kovrig and Spavor were on their way home from China, where they had been detained for over 1,000 days on alleged espionage charges. Their arrest had come just days after Meng’s.
China has publicly maintained that there is no connection between Meng’s case and the men’s imprisonment. But Beijing has also dropped general hints that if she were allowed to go free, that could assistance the two Canadians.
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Experts say the timing of the pair’s release Friday has made the link with Meng’s arrest explicit, but could also point to Beijing’s desire for a fresh start with the West.
“Either they don’t care what people think — which is not good, because it shows that they’re not concerned about international opinion on many things — or they simply want to get the relationships with the United States and Canada back on track as quickly as possible,” said Michael Byer, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.
“It could be a combination of those two things, but either way, (the two men’s release) is a surprise, and it’s a fantastic surprise.”
however getting Canada’s relationship with China back on track will nevertheless take plenty of work.
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Canada has come out strongly against Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, where a new national security law has clamped down on pro-democracy protests and media. China has also exerted influence on Hong Kong’s government and election laws.
In February, Parliament passed a motion formally recognizing China’s treatment of its ethnic Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang province as a genocide. The Liberal cabinet abstained from the vote, with Trudeau calling the genocide term a “loaded information” that should be used carefully.
China has responded to Canada’s statements with anger, telling Ottawa and other Western governments to stop “interfering” with its domestic affairs.
Meng’s detention also led to China temporarily halting imports of Canadian goods like meat and canola oil, while Canada delayed a decision on a 5G network that would have been built by Huawei.
During this nearly three-year period, the Conservative opposition and other critics said Trudeau was not doing enough to stand up for Canada’s interests and counter China’s aggression.
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But Byers believes Trudeau’s more diplomatic approach — articulated most recently during the English-language election argue this month, where he insisted Canada shouldn’t “lob tomatoes across the Pacific” — may have been the right one in this example.
“He had a responsibility to the two Michaels as the leader of the country, not to anger China too much,” he said.
“We have some really big issues,” he additional, including maintaining a mutual trade relationship and combating climate change. “We need to to to be able to include productively with China, but at the same time, we need to be able to to counterbalance China. And it involves an awful lot of diplomacy. And this situation of the two Michaels has complicated an awful lot of that.”
Tiberghien says Canada will also have little choice but to get caught up in at all event happens between China and the U.S., whose relationship has also been damaged by the Meng case along with a years-long trade war.
He points to the U.S.-United Kingdom-Australia agreement on nuclear submarine and defence technology — which Canada was left out of — as proof that China is increasingly becoming the focus of the western world, despite the continued need for diplomatic and economic ties.
“We are now facing this moment where the U.S. is telling its allies the number one priority for us is harsh competition with China,” he said. “‘We see China as a systemic threat: Are you with us or with not?’ That’s what they’re saying, and we have to keep up with that.”
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Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the Munk School of Global Affairs, says the release of Kovrig and Spavor could move Canada-China relations into “another phase” that will allow Canada to take a stronger stance on those important issues.
But she said proactive planning will be crucial to avoid repeating what happened to the two Canadians.
“More importantly, Canada is very much in need of a proactive China strategy with well thought-out policies on how Canada will deal with a rising belligerent strength,” she wrote in an email.
“The rise of China is not a fading issue; we cannot provide to be caught again in a passive situation with no strategy in place, such as when (the) two Michaels were arrested some 1,000 days ago.”
Others believe that, no matter how hard Canada works to either enhance its relationship with China or bolster its defences against the country, the relationship will be forever changed after the chaos of the past three years.
“The damage is long-lasting, in my opinion. It’s very difficult to repair,” said Vincent Yang, a senior associate with the Vancouver-based International Centre for Criminal Law Reform & Criminal Justice Policy.
“It’s going to take many decades … to restore the relationship. The trust is gone, basically.”
–With files from Global’s Mercedes Stephenson, Rachel Gilmore and David Lao
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