By Catherine Porter, Dan Bilefsky and Rick Gladstone
The United States and China are embroiled in a tense trade war that seemed headed for escalation after the United States accused a top Chinese technology executive of fraud.
Who has China lashed out at?
Furious at the arrest in Vancouver, British Columbia, of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at Huawei, the Chinese technology giant, China has seized at least two Canadians. Chinese social media users are clamoring for a boycott of Canada’s products. Anxious Canadians are wondering if they should scrap trips to China or urge relatives there to come home.
Canada is in a tricky spot, boxed in the middle between its two largest trading partners, and worried about having to choose sides.
After feeling burned by negotiations to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, the country is trying to strengthen trade relations with China in part to lessen dependence on economic ties to the United States. And many Canadians are wary of what they consider President Donald Trump’s capricious view of Canada.
“Canada is between a rock and a hard place,” said Wenran Jiang, a senior fellow at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia.
Trump’s relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been chilly at best this year. Now, with the extradition process unfolding in the next months, Trudeau risks alienating China as well.
As of Thursday evening there was no word on where China was holding the two seized Canadians, Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a writer and entrepreneur. Canadian consular officials have not been able to see them.
Both face charges of undermining China’s national security.
China’s announcement that it was holding them further complicated what has now become a crisis entangling all three countries. It arose from the bitter trade dispute between China and the United States and the U.S. extradition case against Meng, who was arrested nearly two weeks ago.
Meng, an affluent business celebrity in China, was freed on bail Tuesday by a court in Vancouver, where she was detained at the request of the United States on suspicion of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. When or whether she will be extradited remains unclear.
Unswayed by the bail release, China has demanded that Canada free Meng immediately, seeing her arrest as a sneaky political ploy engineered by the U.S.
Canada has said it was abiding by the laws governing an extradition agreement with the United States. But that reasoning has only further infuriated China.
The anger was seen in an opinion piece by China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, published Thursday in the Globe and Mail.
“The detention of Ms. Meng is not a mere judicial case, but a premeditated political action in which the United States wields its regime power to witch-hunt a Chinese high-tech company out of political consideration,” Lu wrote. “The so-called long-arm jurisdiction of the United States, however, has no legal basis in international law.”
Those who accuse China of retaliatory detentions over Meng’s arrest, he suggested, “should first reflect on the actions of the Canadian side.” He added, “It is both ignominious and hypocritical to revile China with double standards.”
Jiang said that to many Chinese, it appeared — fairly or not — that Canada had been “doing the dirty work of the Americans, in what seems like a tactic for a U.S. trade war with China.”
A former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, said the dispute would likely worsen and beckon an economic backlash by China, the world’s second largest economy behind the United States.
“They will start to increase pressure, canceling contracts maybe stopping shipments to China of key exports like canola, pork and beef,” Saint-Jacques said.
Some suggested Meng’s challenge to extradition had been strengthened because of a remark by Trump in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday.
Trump implied he would intervene in Meng’s extradition if it would help land a trade deal with China. By tying the two, Trump may have inadvertently given Meng a way to avoid extradition by arguing that her arrest is a politically motivated case, in which the bar for extradition is far higher.
“He’s handed ammunition to Ms. Meng’s lawyers,” said Robert Currie, a professor of law with expertise on extradition at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Normally extraditions to the United States are not much of an issue in Canada and are mostly granted.
But Meng’s lawyers could argue that “she’s being used as a proxy in a trade war, and we’re not sure she will get a fair trial in the United States,” Currie said. “It’s not just about criminal law anymore. It’s about politics.”
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland of Canada clearly saw the implications of Trump’s remarks.
“Our extradition partners should not seek to politicize the extradition process or use it for ends other than the pursuit of justice,” she told a news conference Wednesday.
On Friday, Freeland is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, part of a previously scheduled dialogue that also includes the top defense officials from the two governments. The subject of Meng, the two Canadian detainees in China and pressure from the Chinese government will no doubt be discussed.
The arrests in China have sent a chill through Canadians who work and travel regularly to the country. Saint-Jacques said he has heard from a number of professionals who have postponed business trips to China.
“There is a rising fear that anyone else could be arrested at random, especially since we know China doesn’t have the same definition of national security,” he said. “It is pretty elastic and very broad.”
Extradition can take months in Canada.
First a Canadian judge must be convinced of the case, and then the country’s justice minister must approve. If either decision is appealed, the process can drag on for years, Currie said.
But, in Meng’s case, her lawyers could try to get the extradition order quashed pre-emptively based on political involvement, he said.
“At the moment, both the president of the United States and the government of China seem to be interfering in our legal process,” Currie said. The government’s priority now, he said, is “defending Canada sovereignty and defending the Canadian legal process.”
What this may mean for the fate of Kovrig and Spavor is unclear at best. But it appears that China’s security apparatus had been monitoring them for awhile.
Kovrig, the former diplomat, was first secretary and vice consul at Canada’s Beijing embassy from 2014 to 2016. More recently he had been working as a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization that moved its Beijing office to Hong Kong a few years ago amid tightened Chinese restrictions on such foreign organizations.
He was regarded as a Sinophile, fluent in Mandarin, who had spent years investigating sensitive subjects such as the rights of Chinese ethnic minorities.
Spavor saw himself as a sort of adventurer, writer, fixer, consultant and mediator between the West and reclusive North Korea.
He helped to arrange a high-profile visit to North Korea in 2016 by basketball star Dennis Rodman and boasted that he had even met Kim Jong Un, the North’s enigmatic leader, and had posed for a photograph with him, laughing and shaking hands, that he displayed on social media.