As It Happens

Why former foreign minister John Manley thinks Canada botched Huawei affair

With two Canadians still detained in China, Canada's foreign minister makes an appeal for the rule of law. But one of her predecessors warns that more creative measures might be needed when the rules are being bent by the big powers on the world stage.

John Manley says detaining Meng Wanzhou should have been an opportunity for 'creative incompetence'

Canada's former Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley says Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould should have taken a different approach in handling Meng Wanzhou's case. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)


The Trudeau government should have exercised a little bit of "creative incompetence" when it comes to the arrest of Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou, says former foreign affairs minister John Manley.

Two Canadians have been detained in China after Canada complied with a U.S. request to arrest the Huawei CFO in Vancouver. She now faces extradition to the U.S. over allegations she tried to bypass American trade sanctions on Iran.

U.S. President Donald Trump has tweeted that he would intervene in her case if it would help in trade negotiations with China. 

Manley sits on the board of Telus, which, like most other Canadian telecommunications companies, has business interests with Huawei.

He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the political ramifications of Meng's arrest and Trump's tweets.

Here is part of their conversation.

Just how much grief has this arrest brought for Canada?

This is an enormously problematic issue for Canada. We're caught between not only two major superpowers, but two economic powers, and our two largest trading partners. We've got ourselves in a situation from which it's going to be very difficult to extricate ourselves. 

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, right, arrives at a parole office with a member of her private security detail in Vancouver on Dec. 12, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

But it seems that not just this but what's just happened with Saudi Arabia and what's going on with the renegotiation of NAFTA — does it seem that Canada's quite isolated at this point?

I don't think, Carol, that Canada has ever been more alone in the world than it is today. Deep in our DNA, we've been part of some, what you might call, imperial power.

We were part of the British Empire. Our soldiers went to fight in the First World War when we weren't even really a country. We then emerged after World War Two as part of the U.S. Empire, independent, but still we basically aligned with the U.S. on most issues.

And the last 30 years of being part of Canada U.S. Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA has further intensified our economic integration. All of a sudden, all of that is up for grabs. We've never before seen the degree of animosity from the United States that we've seen from President Trump to Canada, to Canada's business practices, and to Canada's prime ministers.

And now, we find ourselves with no friends. We criticize Saudi Arabia for things for which they rightly deserve criticism. None of our ostensible allies, open democracies and countries that rely on rule of law, spoke out in our favour and now we're in a wedge with China. 

But in this situation with China, we have been trying to get more deeply involved economically with China. The United States is too. But now we're stuck sort of holding the bag. We have taken on China with this arrest. Meanwhile, the president is saying, "Why I might just trade that in for, I don't know, soy beans or something." And so, is Canada being played for a fool here?

Yes, well I think actually the president has given Ms. Meng's lawyers quite a good reason to go to the court and say, "This is not an extradition matter. This is actually leverage in a trade dispute and it's got nothing to do with Canada. It's got nothing to do with trade with Iran. Let's call this what it is — it's an attempt to get China to buy more soybeans from the mid-western United States." And call it a day.

I think the Attorney General of Canada could also weigh in from that point of view because we find ourselves in a situation where really I think lots of warning bells should have gone off.

This was not an extradition of somebody who was a drug trafficker, a human smuggler, or any of the typical things that we find people getting extradited for. This is a senior executive of a global company.

Yes, they accused Huawei of doing things that they ought not to have done. But before you arrest someone in that category you make awfully sure that this is really what it's claimed to be. And I think the president has made it pretty clear that's not what it was at all.

Manley says Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould shouldn't have flagged the issue with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

It's a bit late, I guess, now. But was it a mistake for Canada to detain Ms. Meng?

As I said, I think it was a good opportunity for a little bit of creative incompetence on the part of Canadian authorities and somehow just miss her.

This has happened from time to time that we sometimes don't always do exactly everything we needed to do and the world really wouldn't have been any wiser about it. But once the prime minister was informed, which apparently he was, we're really obliged by our treaties to act in accordance with the law. The trouble with the prime minister having been informed, and I don't think he should have been, is to the Chinese that means this was political.

Supporters stand with a sign outside B.C. Supreme Court before the bail hearing for Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou on Dec. 10, 2018. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)

Could we de-escalate this perhaps by calling this an abusive process, given what the president has said, and drop this extradition process altogether?

My hope is that there are people burning the midnight oil at the justice department to see if that advice can be given to the attorney general. The thing is that would have been easier without the arrest of the two Canadians.

Now the political judgment would be perhaps this is an abusive process, on the other hand we can't appear to be caving in to bully tactics by China. But I actually do think it's an abusive process and it should be brought to an end as quickly as possible. But the communication of that would be very tricky.

Do you think that Chrystia Freeland and Justin Trudeau played this badly?

Well I don't think they should have been playing it at all. If there's a politician that's on the hook on this it's the attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould. 

Written John McGill. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.