The tracking bracelet on Meng Wanzhou’s left ankle – ubiquitous in her many court appearances since her arrest at the Vancouver International Airport in December 2018 – has become a widely-followed fashion statement among bloggers and other style-watchers. As such it serves as a stark reminder of how Canada’s treatment of Meng compares with that of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians seized by China in retaliation for Meng’s lawful arrest and who are still held as hostages in all but name. They remain incarcerated in a Chinese prison, much of that time spent in solitary confinement, without the luxury of bail or the range of fashion options available to Meng. And such a distinction should be seen as a sign of the many grave mistakes the federal Liberals have made, and continue to make, in their diplomatic and economic dealings with China.
Meng, chief financial officer of Chinese technology firm Huawei, is charged with violating United States sanctions against Iran by lying to international investment bank HSBC about financing for Skycom Tech, an Iranian firm that U.S prosecutors claim is covertly a Huawei subsidiary. Following Canada’s entirely legal response to a U.S. extradition request that would require Meng to face these charges, the Chinese Foreign Ministry warned that Canada would face “grave consequences” and that China would “take all measures to resolutely protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens.” China later arrested Kovrig and Spavor, a former diplomat with Global Affairs Canada and an entrepreneur, respectively. China also cut off several agricultural imports from Canada, most notably canola seed, a market worth about $3 billion per year to Canada.
Why has the Meng Affair proved to be such a massive diplomatic headache for Canada? The simplest answer is that Huawei is one of the People’s Republic of China’s most important enterprises – its ownership structure is murky and strongly suggests state control – and its success is inextricably connected to China’s geopolitical ambitions. Any threat to Huawei is thus perceived as a threat to China itself. Adding to this effect is the fact Meng is widely expected to take over once the firm’s founder, her father Ren, steps down. But the role played by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in contributing to the problems for Canada cannot be overlooked. By failing to clearly articulate Canada’s best interests and then acting accordingly, Trudeau bears a large share of the responsibility for this mess.
The Meng Affair has become a useful sorting tool for separating Canadians who seek to appease China from those committed to defending traditional Canadian values, the national interest and the physical safety of Canadians abroad. In June, for example, an open letter urged Ottawa to intervene in the independent judicial process of the B.C. Superior Court and release Meng in exchange for Spavor and Kovrig. “Ending the Meng extradition process now and securing the release of the two Michaels would untie Canada’s hands at a time when the Canadian government must be fully free to re-define its strategic approach to China, and take the tough steps needed to protect and advance our own interests,” the letter states. Signatories included prominent political figures such as former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock, former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent, and former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Louise Frechette.
This was not the first appearance of numerous political luminaries in defence of Huawei’s interests. Huawei previously hired McCarthy Tétrault, a firm with deep Liberal Party ties, to represent its interests in Canada. That legal team included former Quebec premier Jean Charest and former clerk of the privy council Wayne Wouters. In addition, Rock was part of a back-channel delegation of non-government officials who travelled to China in November 2019 in an attempt to sway the Chinese into releasing the hostages. The answer they received, which they reported to Canada’s Ambassador to China Dominic Barton was that the two Michaels’ fate is directly tied to Meng, although China has never publicly admitted it arrested the two Canadians in retaliation.
Trudeau rejected such overtures, to the surprise of many. “The reality is releasing Meng Wanzhou to resolve a short-term problem would endanger thousands of Canadians who travel to China and around the world by letting countries know that a government can have political influence over Canada by randomly arresting Canadians,” he observed in an unexpected burst of good sense. Trudeau took a similarly tough stance in 2016 when a terrorist group in the Philippines demanded ransom for two kidnapped Canadians, who subsequently died after Canada refused to pay.
Despite brave talk in this instance, however, the Trudeau government has avoided taking a consistently robust approach to Chinese designs. According to long-time China expert Charles Burton, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute who was a counsellor at Canada’s embassy in China in the 1990s, China has more “diplomats” assigned to Canada than to any other country. Remarkably, there are one-third more stationed here than in the United States. Many are engaged in what the Communist Party of China (CPC) describes as “promotion of stability activities”. This phrase describes a vast arc of organizations and initiatives covering everything from Confucius Institutes that spread the CPC “party line” throughout Canadian civil society to clandestine or explicit influence-building operations.
Trudeau is doubtless aware of these threats. And yet he has gone to great lengths to avoid giving offence to Chinese interests. This may be a reflection of the elite view that China will eventually revert to behaving according to international norms, or the product of naked political self-interest, given the massive amount of Chinese lobbying focused on Liberal sources. Whatever the reason, Trudeau’s failure to adopt a uniformly stern approach to Chinese demands is a clear factor in the train wreck that’s become the Meng Affair.
5G vs. Five Eyes
Huawei is a major player in the global roll-out of 5G networks, the next step in wireless communications and interactivity. Due to its close ties to the CPC, however, there are numerous well-documented concerns that the firm’s 5G infrastructure is susceptible to Chinese spying – or that it might even be designed with that purpose in mind. Earlier this year, former prime minister Stephen Harper told Fox News that, “The penetration of Huawei into…government systems [and] 5G networks would be an unequivocal threat to national security. I mean we’ve got to understand that Huawei is not a normal private company, it is an extension of the Chinese surveillance state.”
It’s not as if Canada would be alone in rebuffing Huawei; if anything, we are far behind the international curve. Conservative Party national security critic Pierre-Paul Hus recently warned that, “The Trudeau Liberals’ failure to ban Huawei from our 5G network puts Canada offside with our allies, partners, and threatens intelligence-sharing with our closest friends.” Hus describes this as “an abject failure on the Trudeau government’s part to protect our national security.”
The Five Eyes Alliance is a cooperation agreement among Canada, the U.S, Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia to share signals intelligence, or “sigint”. This refers to clandestinely intercepting, decrypting and evaluating information that passes through communication equipment used by a targeted country or organization – like radio traffic among military units, e-mails between members of a terrorist cell, or an ambassador’s phone call to his foreign ministry.
The arrangement began in 1946 as a deal between the U.S. and Great Britain; Canada was added two years later, a testament to our reliability as an ally to both countries. Australia and New Zealand came onboard officially in 1955. As the cybersphere becomes an increasingly important proxy battleground for inter-state conflict, a united western front for intelligence-gathering and dissemination remains a crucial component of modern national defence, even decades after the end of the Cold War.
Given the possibility of backdoor Chinse spying via Huawei’s 5G network, the U.S. has banned Huawei equipment, as have Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Canada is the only member of Five Eyes not to have declared Huawei equipment off-limits for its 5G network. This is a serious omission and the U.S Department of State has said it will reassess its intelligence-sharing with Canada if the federal government doesn’t change its position.
Despite the massive damage to Canada’s intelligence-gathering capability were our role in Five Eyes curtailed, the Trudeau government’s response has been to offload responsibility for this decision onto the private sector. Ottawa deliberately slow-played the national review process for Huawei’s 5G network, evidently hoping to nudge impatient telecommunications companies into signing deals with other providers. Anonymous sources confirmed to Reuters earlier this year that perpetually delaying the Huawei decision was explicit policy. “The absence of a solution will eventually settle all problems,” said one Deep Throat. Another observed: “They’ve done the political calculus and said, ‘The best thing for us is to do nothing and if we do nothing, we don’t upset the Chinese, we don’t upset the Americans.’”
As a result of the Liberal’s go-slow calculus, in June Bell and Telus both announced they’d made a deal with Swedish-based Ericsson for the construction of their 5G infrastructure. This followed the lead of Rogers, which had selected Ericsson in 2018. Together, the three companies form a virtual oligopoly on the Canadian telecom market, with a 91 percent combined market share. Telus’s announcement surprised many as it had long favoured Huawei’s systems due to their lower cost.
But while Huawei may currently be out of the conversation for building Canada’s 5G system, nothing Ottawa has done makes this state of affairs permanent. This is a dangerous bit of waffling that’s fooling no-one. The U.S. continues to stress that a categorical ban will be necessary for Canada’s continued full participation in the Five Eyes. China, for its part, sees all this as an amateurish attempt at deception. Trudeau’s unwillingness either to officially ban or accept Huawei and suffer retaliation from the resulting aggrieved party has needlessly pushed Canada into the middle of a new Cold War between the U.S. and China.
The Price of Weakness
In September another open letter again urged the Prime Minister to swap Meng for the two Michaels. It was signed by more than 100 ex-diplomats, who were unwilling to disclose their names, and organized by Gar Pardy, former director-general of Canada’s consular affairs. “I am surprised that such a large number of ex-diplomats have supported Mr. Pardy’s view,” Burton told The Globe and Mail. “It sends out a signal to the Chinese regime that holding Spavor and Kovrig is, in fact, working for them in terms of gaining support for their agenda in Canada. As more and more of these China-friendly petitions come forward urging us to arbitrarily release Meng and violate the court process, the more the Chinese are emboldened to think that’s what the government is going to do.”
In a recent interview with C2C Journal, Burton added that a better approach would be to put aside the prevarication and respond to serious threats in kind. “I think it would hasten the release of Kovrig and Spavor if we retaliated and showed some backbone in our relations with China,” he stressed. “Our current policy of passiveness – not doing anything in retaliation for the arbitrary arrest of Kovrig and Spavor or the arbitrary violation of canola seed contracts with China on false grounds – indicates to the Chinese government that the measures they have taken…are effective.” And so the two Michaels continue to suffer and, by implication, all other Canadians who venture to China must consider themselves under threat as well.
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney has advised a similar approach to Burton’s. Canada, he told the media over the summer, needs an “immediate and urgent rethink of our relationship with China…The world has changed.” And of paramount importance is maintaining Canada’s position in the English-speaking countries’ intelligence-sharing arrangement. “We have to preserve our relationship with the Five Eyes,” Mulroney said. “Whatever that takes.”
While the alliance’s internal dynamics remain extremely secretive, the amount of intelligence Canada is privy to as a Five Eyes member is enormous and should be considered extremely valuable. It is highly probably, for example, that our membership in the group is the reason the Canadian Armed Forces’ Medical Intelligence Cell received key information about the emerging Covid-19 virus and its origins in Wuhan from the American National Centre for Medical Intelligence this past January. Unfortunately, while Australia and the U.S. closed down flights from China later that month, Trudeau ignored the warnings and allowed flights to continue, not merely from China but from Wuhan itself.
The faction in government and elsewhere who prefer appeasement of Chinese interests appear, unfortunately, to be more numerous and influential than China hawks like Burton and Mulroney. And they continue to counsel doing nothing. Ken Moak is a former professor of public policy at Capilano University and author of the 2015 book China’s Economic Rise and its Global Impact. In an article posted to the China Global Television Network’s website, Moak argued for even further delay. “It is politically expedient to deal with the Huawei decision…after the U.S. presidential election in November,” he wrote in August. “Should Joe Biden be elected, he might reverse [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s policies which alienated most of the world and pushed the U.S. economy to the brink.”
Biden has promised to roll back trade tariffs and may attempt to take a softer line on China than Trump. But reversing the ban of Huawei would be very difficult, given the stance of the State Department, both aisles of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission. Regardless of the outcome of his various legal challenges concerning the voting results in several states, it appears Trump has permanently shifted the U.S. government’s posture towards China – as well as public opinion – from capitulation to confrontation. This approach was initially sneered at but has since become a rare area of bipartisan agreement in Washington, much to Trump’s credit. As such, simply waiting for Biden to take office is unlikely to change the landscape.
Moak further argues that banning Huawei would raise costs for Canadian telecom companies and delay the country’s 5G rollout. But the three major telecom networks are already offering 5G service in the downtown cores of Canada’s largest cities. Finally, Moak thinks continued appeasement would bring Canada an expanded and improved trading relationship with China. Liberal inaction, in other words, is supposed to bring us the best of both worlds. But this is only true in the vacuum of bilateral relations. If the U.S. stays on course in its Cold War with China, it will surely expect sincere cooperation from Canada and its other allies.
As for the economics of turning away from America in favour of cozying up to China, it’s true that Canadian exports to China fell by 16 percent last year, to $24.4 billion. These numbers are large, providing prima facie evidence for the appeasers. But in overall terms this change only represents a drop from 4.6 percent to 4 percent of Canada’s net exports. Meanwhile, nearly 75 percent of Canada’s exports go to the United States. The potential for retaliation from the U.S. thereby offsets – many times over – any potential increase in trade with China. A Biden Administration might prove less hostile to free trade and globalization than Trump, but it makes no sense for Canada to risk the intricate and enormous cross-border commercial relationship with its southern neighbour in order to win favour from a distant and hostile dictatorship. Canada’s economic interests will always be tied to a strong U.S.
While Canada’s appeasement party is large and vocal (even if some of its members lack the courage to reveal their names), the other side isn’t to be dismissed. In June a group of named signatories penned an open letter to Trudeau calling on him to hold fast on Meng and pointing out the fundamental immorality of swapping her for the two Michaels. Among the 57 signatories were Ward Elcock, the respected former director of CSIS; former Conservative finance minister Joe Oliver; former Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford; Cherie Wong, Executive Director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong; and Mehmet Tohti, Executive Director of the Uyghurs’ Rights Advocacy Project.
The idea of a “prisoner exchange”, they wrote, “assumes a false equivalence between Canada’s legitimate arrest of Meng in accordance with our legal obligations and China’s kidnapping of Kovrig and Spavor – an equivalence as spurious as it is heart-breaking. Such an exchange would be nothing less than the abandonment of the rule of law and acceding to the demands of hostage-takers.” They also pointed out that Meng’s “alleged crimes involved are not minor, but enabled a scheme that saw hundreds of millions of dollars flow illegally to Iran in defiance of international sanctions. China aims, through its hostage diplomacy, to weaken the international community’s ability to enforce such rules.”
As for the cost of such a principled stand, in a September 2019 report for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, independent researcher Duanjie Chen argued that Canada isn’t as impotent as generally assumed. “It is important to remember that the majority of our exports to China are commodities for which the supply is constrained by natural resources that are either scarce or rapidly depleting in China,” Chen wrote. “Meanwhile, all our imports from China are manufactured goods that are easily replaceable from suppliers in other markets, despite possibly higher prices.”
Should We do Business with Kidnappers?
If there is any recent encouraging news, it lies in Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s announcement in September that he had abandoned free trade talks with China. In doing so, Champagne denounced Beijing’s “assertive and coercive diplomacy” and emphasized Canada’s priority to free the two Michaels. “The China of 2016 is not the China of 2020,” he observed. “All the initiatives and the policies that had been put in place at the time – all that needs to be reviewed…We’re looking at all of them with the lens of China of 2020.
The plain and ordinary meaning of those words suggests an almost tectonic reversal of Canada’s China policy towards a virtually Trumpian stance. Time will tell how far the Liberal government is willing to go in substance. Certainly, dropping plans to sign a free trade agreement with a country that kidnaps your citizens in an effort to pervert your legal system is to be considered a step in the right direction, if a belated one.
This move likely reflects the strong shift in public opinion picked up by pollsters as well as through more anecdotal channels. And it emulates the tough stance towards China taken by new Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole. Perhaps the Trudeau government has even been forced into a necessary reassessment of its support for China’s “basic dictatorship”, as Trudeau lovingly described it during the 2015 election campaign. If true, the next obvious policy correction would be to announce a permanent ban on Huawei’s 5G infrastructure.
Further ways to strengthen Canada’s position vis-à-vis China would include relinquishing membership in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a predatory Chinese lending institution that is legitimized by Canada’s participation. Cancelling a $6.8 million contract to supply security equipment for Canadian embassies granted to a Chinese state-owned enterprise, which the National Post described as the “Huawei of airport security”, would be another good move. As would standing up against the abuses of Uyghur minorities in China, and human rights violations more generally.
The Canadian government should recognize its moral obligation to explicitly condemn China’s authoritarianism. Dodging these issues has exposed our government’s weakness in defending Western values. Recent news that Canada will take steps to increase immigration from Hong Kong in light of recent anti-democracy laws and activity by Hong Kong’s increasingly puppet-like government is also welcome news. The Liberals, however, still have a long way to go to prove their immigration policy is built on principle rather than political expediency.
And we can’t forget the personal costs to the Canadians directly involved. “I will not stop until Michael is free,” Kovrig’s wife Vina Nadjibulla bravely declared in a video interview earlier this year in which she described the difficulties of having to rely on a single letter every month from her husband. (A link that was later severed for arbitrary reasons.) Nadjibulla is spearheading domestic efforts to secure her husband’s release, including via legal opinions and publicity campaigns. Spavor’s family and friends have launched a similar endeavour, with a website requesting: “China, free our friend.” Meanwhile Meng, with her ankle bracelet firmly attached, continues to enjoy the high-life as her numerous legal challenges wend their way through the Canadian courts.
While China is the obvious transgressor in the Meng Affair and deserves to be recognized as such, Trudeau’s strategic errors on this issue – along with public campaigns for appeasement – have contributed to the Michaels’ situation. Had the prime minister summoned the courage to ban Huawei before or with the arrest of Meng, Canada wouldn’t be engaged in a needless confrontation with the American government (and be offside the rest of Five Eyes as well). A tough line on China from the beginning, as recommended by Burton, would have sent a clear signal to China that we are not prepared to negotiate on basic matters of national security. Instead we continue to send mixed signals. “People in [Canada’s] government who are sympathetic to the Peoples Republic of China keep trying to assure the Chinese state that we will be releasing Meng Wanzhou, and that after we’ve released her, our relationship will resume the way it was,” Burton observes.
Had Canada taken an appropriately tough line from the beginning, it is still likely we would have suffered some degree of Chinese retaliation; countries that anger China for whatever reason can expect to feel the Dragon’s claws. But Trudeau’s transparent efforts to avoid an official government ban on Huawei have been interpreted in Beijing as weakness. As a result, Canada now sits between two increasingly hostile superpowers when we should be clearly aligned with our historical friend, ally and predominant trading partner – as well as the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. It is time for Canada’s government to reaffirm its core Western alliances and reject conclusively the notion that we can safely befriend a hostile dictatorship.
Fin dePencier is a journalist and business management student at Ryerson University. He can be followed on Instagram @finlookedintoit