Canada-China impasse: law versus power

December 17, 2018 15:36
Canada becomes the object of China's ire after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested at the Vancouver airport at the behest of the United States. Photo: Bloomberg

Henry Kissinger, in his book On China, wrote that Chinese strategists think differently than their western counterparts because they are used to playing a different board game, weiqi, where the player patiently gains relative advantage through strategic encirclement rather than seek total victory through checkmating the opponent.

In the current impasse between Canada and China, it seems that one side is adopting a rule of law approach to the detention and possible extradition of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese electronics firm Huawei and daughter of its founder, Ren Zhengfei, while the other sees the issue as one where political power will be decisive. 

In the background, of course, is the US-China trade war and, behind that, the longer-term struggle between the United States and China for global pre-eminence. 

While initially there were fears that the Meng’s detention could derail the trade talks agreed to by the US and China at their summit meeting in Buenos Aires on Nov. 1, it now seems clear that those talks are still firmly on track. This is likely because they were agreed to personally by the American president, Donald Trump, and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

So, despite Chinese officials castigating American as well as Canadian officials over the arrest of Meng at the Vancouver airport, the trade talks themselves have evidently survived unscathed, though temporarily overshadowed by the crisis of the Meng arrest. Ironically, this occurred on the same day, albeit 11,300 kilometers away, as the Buenos Aires dinner.

Meng, a 46-year-old mother of four, had flown from Hong Kong to Vancouver where she planned to change planes for a flight to Mexico. Little did Canada realize when placing her under arrest that it was also placing itself in the middle of a tug of war between the US and China, the world’s two superpowers.

A Dec. 5 statement by the Chinese embassy in Ottawa on the arrest took an aggressive stance, saying: “At the request of the US side, the Canadian side arrested a Chinese citizen not violating any American or Canadian law.”

It called on the US and Canada to “immediately correct the wrongdoing and restore the personal freedom of Ms. Meng Wanzhou”. 

In reality, of course, an extradition request is premised on the allegation of a criminal offense, but one that hasn’t yet been proved in a court of law.

The following day, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing demanded that the US and Canada “immediately clarify the reason for the detention and release the detainee”, as though there was no reason that could possibly justify her detention. 

The nature of the alleged offense was disclosed in bail hearings that began Dec. 7. Court filings disclosed that the US accused Meng of bank fraud, alleging that she had lied to HSBC about Huawei’s connections to Skycom Tech, a Hong Kong company that did business with Iran from 2009 to 2014, defying US sanctions.

On Dec. 8, Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, was summoned to the Chinese foreign ministry where “solemn representations and strong protests” were lodged.

Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng warned that unless Meng was immediately released, there would be “grave consequences”.

Threats of “grave consequences” were made on numerous occasions and were supported by state media, most notably the Global Times.

Then, on Dec. 11, it was reported that Michael Kovrig, a former serving Canadian diplomat now with a non-governmental organization, International Crisis Group, was missing.

Three days later, a foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, announced that Kovrig and another Canadian citizen, Michael Spavor, were under investigation by state security officials “on suspicion of engaging in activities that harm China’s state security.”

Strikingly, the Canadian foreign minister, Christia Freeland, didn’t demand that China release the two Canadians. Instead, she said: "In the cases of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, our immediate concern has been to gain consular access to them and to understand what the charges are that have been put on them by the Chinese authorities.”

That is to say, she took Chinese law seriously. She sought to understand the charges before demanding the release of her compatriots. This was the exact opposite of the Chinese approach, which was to overwhelm with a display of raw power and to heck with the law.

As China continues its inexorable rise and the US goes its uncertain way, Canada – and like-minded countries – will have to decide whether it can afford to stick to its traditions and values. That is the challenge posed by China to much of the world today.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.