Our dismal relationship with China just got a whole lot worse

Meng Wanzhou lost the first round in her bid to avoid extradition to the United States on Wednesday. But it’s clear the B.C. court ruling doesn’t help the Trudeau government much either.

Whatever else happens, we can expect Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to suffer for it

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou leaves B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, British Columbia on Jan. 20, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Meng Wanzhou lost the first round in her bid to avoid extradition to the United States on Wednesday. But it's clear the B.C. court ruling doesn't help the Trudeau government much either.

Relations between Canada and China are arguably at their lowest point since the prime minister's father was prime minister and established diplomatic ties back in the early 1970s. The ruling already has led to warnings about blowback from Beijing — especially for detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Both are accused of violating China's national security. Unlike Meng, they aren't free to move about — as she did this week while posing with a bevy of friends and colleagues on the courthouse steps in Vancouver for a photographer.

Kovrig and Spavor remain in solitary confinement. Neither man has been seen, in person or virtually, by Canadian consular officials since January.

Bad news for Kovrig and Spavor

Former Canadian ambassador to Beijing David Mulroney said he expects their plight to get even worse.

"My takeaway is that this (decision) is not good news for the two Michaels," he said Wednesday. "That's human and personal. It affects two Canadians who are victims in this, who are being held hostage, and we can never forget that."

The two men are caught in the middle of a diplomatic dispute not of their making. They're the human faces of a tug-of-war between two superpowers that continues to stretch Canada to its diplomatic limits.

A young man holds a sign bearing photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor outside B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, where Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was attending a hearing, on January 21, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The Chinese government has loudly demanded the release of Huawei's chief financial officer, and has warned just as loudly that its relations with Canada will not improve until she's free.

The reaction Wednesday from the Chinese embassy in Ottawa didn't stray from those themes. In a statement, the embassy accused Canada of assisting the Trump administration by "arbitrarily taking forceful measures" against Meng in a bold attempt to prevent her telecommunications company from making inroads into new markets.

"The purpose of the United States is to bring down Huawei and other Chinese high-tech companies, and Canada has been acting in the process as an accomplice of the United States," the statement read.

"The whole case is entirely a grave political incident."

From the U.S. Justice Department came the briefest of acknowledgements that anything had happened at all in the Meng case.

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"The United States thanks the Government of Canada for its continued assistance pursuant to the U.S.-Canada Extradition Treaty in this ongoing matter."

As important as the fate of the two Michaels is for Canada's diplomatic efforts, it's not the only problem the court decision could aggravate.

Canada now depends on China for much of the personal protective equipment needed by front-line health care workers in the battle to contain COVID-19. Access to that equipment is not guaranteed.

China is a major export destination. Renewed trade sanctions on Canadian food and agricultural products amount to another potential threat.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne insists Canada continues to take principled stands on China despite the Meng case — by supporting Australia's call for an independent investigation into the origins of the pandemic and by joining other western countries in condemning China's proposed national security law, which will allow its state police to deal harshly with pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.

Sanctions coming?

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress on Wednesday that the administration no longer considers the city to be autonomous — a decision that opens the door to U.S. sanctions on the Chinese officials working to eliminate the last vestiges of Hong Kong's independence.

The Canadian Senate is considering its own bill to impose sanctions under the Magnitsky Act against the Chinese officials violating human rights. The bill, sponsored by senators Leo Housakos and Thanh Hai Ngo, sparked a furious response from China's ambassador, who warned of severe counter-measures if it goes ahead.

A riot police officer fires his weapon during a protest as a second reading of a controversial national anthem law takes place in Hong Kong, May 27, 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

And then there's that pending decision on whether to allow Huawei to take part in Canada's 5G network — a decision that's been moving through government channels slower than the processors in those early laptop computers.

If there's anything positive to take away from China's growing assertiveness on the world stage and its denial of human rights, it's that Canada isn't alone in pushing back, said Sen. Peter Boehm, a senior diplomat before his appointment to the upper chamber in 2018.

"As we move forward, we have to do it in solidarity with like-minded countries who have similar concerns ... on Hong Kong, the threats to Taiwan, the claims to the South China Seas and  the suppression of human rights," he said.

A distracted superpower

David Mulroney offered another glimmer of light. China, he said, is picking a lot of fights these days — including its increasingly tense border standoff with India in the Himalayas and its handling of the pandemic.

"Their ability to focus on any one irritant is limited," he said.

Mulroney's advice to the Trudeau government is to not overreact to Wednesday's ruling, to allow the judgment to speak for itself.

More than anything else, he said, that would underscore the independence of Canada's judiciary from the kind of political direction Chinese authorities take for granted.


Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was the CBC's national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.