Canada and China engage in high-stakes stand-off over prisoners

Countries playing by very different rules as Canada becomes collateral damage in US rift

Hours after a court in China sentenced Canadian Michael Spavor to 11 years in prison for espionage, Meng Wanzhou appeared in a Vancouver courtroom, as final arguments began in her fight against extradition to the United States.

The two cases, while not officially linked, are at the heart a geopolitical feud between the United States and China, which has left Canada suffering collateral damage.

Michael Spavor and a second Canadian, Michael Kovrig, were arrested by Chinese officials in December 2018, days after Canada arrested the Huawei executive on a US extradition request.

China has repeatedly demanded she be released, even though prime minister Justin Trudeau has said his government cannot interfere in the country's judicial process.


But after Spavor was sentenced on Wednesday, Ottawa must grapple with the reality that Beijing plans to tie the fate of two jailed Canadians to Meng's legal saga.

Spavor’s verdict and sentencing, which follow an opaque and secretive trial, were denounced by Canada and its allies, who have accused China of “hostage diplomacy”.

But, according to Jack Cunningham, co-ordinator at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto, Canada's options are limited.

“China is playing by rules they’ve created for themselves. They’re free to manipulate their own domestic judicial process. It’s a regime that sees the rule of law in essentially political terms,” said Cunningham.

“[Foreign minister Marc] Garneau and prime minister Justin Trudeau should be working the phones as much as they can to our allies. And they have a compelling case to make: next time Beijing wants something, it could be one of their nationals essentially serving as a hostage.”

Negotiating signal

While Canada and its allies condemned Spavor's treatment by the Chinese courts, Lynette Ong, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto's Asian Institute, argued that Spavor's sentence may indicate that Beijing is signalling an interest in negotiating.

“Typically we see a life sentence for this type of charge. But 11 years and ambiguity over deportation suggests there might be some ‘wiggle room’ or openness to bargain,” said Ong.

“I wasn’t expecting China to appear soft on the very first verdict, because they see this as a series of political bargains. They’re an experienced player and they want to open with a strong card.”

Canada has not said publicly if it is open to negotiating Meng’s return home in exchange for the release of the two men.

Officials had previously expressed hopes last year that a deal could be reached between the United States and China, but a bargain was never reached.

"This work will continue to go on with the aim of arriving at the result of freeing the two Michaels," Garneau said on Wednesday, telling reporters that US president Joe Biden was treating Kovrig and Spavor as if they were American citizens detained by China.

While China probably understands that Canada’s legal system operates differently from its own, that hasn’t stopped it from pressuring Canada to intervene and reject the American request for Meng.

“China believes there is an element of ‘realpolitik’ at play, something apart from the rules of institutional separation between court and parliament,” said Ong. “They feel the United States elbows Canada into doing things because of our relationship with them.”

Wait and see

She and others suspect China will wait to see how the judge in Meng’s case rules, before announcing a verdict on former diplomat Michael Kovrig.

An initial judgment on Meng’s extradition case is expected in the autumn, but the appeals process could take years.

“This is like a tango dance between the two countries – and I suspect we’ve seen the first in many moves to come,” said Ong.

China has used similar tactics in the past: arresting, charging and sentencing Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt after Canada extradited Su Bin, a suspected spy, to the US. They were released and deported in 2017 soon after Su cut a deal in the US.

While China is more aggressive now than when it struck a deal with the Garratt family, it is also aware of the politically sensitive nature of its current gambit.

“The world is watching, and I think China is very well aware of that,” said Ong. “It has become more emboldened compared to six years ago, but it also needs to consider the immense consequences of its actions.” – Guardian