Kovrig and Spavor were detained shortly after Chinese tech company Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver this past December on an extradition request from the United States. She was later granted bail and is now awaiting further court proceedings.
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A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said Kovrig and Spavor have now been officially arrested on suspicion of gathering and stealing state secrets for “foreign forces.” They’ve been detained in the country since Dec. 10, 2018, and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Thursday the government is “deeply concerned” about China’s latest move.
Goodale said the arrests are an “arbitrary action” and that Canada will continue to demand the two be treated fairly. He said no evidence has been produced to indicate any validity to allegations made against them.
“The government has very few options, that’s what makes this such a frustrating situation,” Roland Paris, former foreign affairs adviser to Trudeau and University of Ottawa professor, told Global News.
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“There’s nothing Canada can do on its own that will force China to release the two Michaels. I doubt the Chinese will release them until the Meng hearing is completed and even then, it might take some time. That’s the painful reality that we’re in, and it’s even more so because it’s not of our own making,” he continued.
He added that Canada’s leverage lies in working with its allies, particularly the United States, as well as others to pressure the Chinese government into releasing them.
“There has been an extraordinary response by other countries to the arbitrary detention of these two Canadians. Many have spoken out publicly. Many have approached the Chinese privately. This response has caught the Chinese somewhat by surprise so we need to sustain that campaign,” he said.
While international pressure will not be enough on its own to secure their release, it will give them a pause before committing similar actions in the future, he explained.
Paris also speculates that China will not release Kovrig and Spavor until after Meng’s hearing is complete and “even then, it may take some time.”
Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China and honorary chair of the Ottawa-based China Policy Centre, agreed that leveraging international support with a specific focus on the United States is necessary to put pressure on Chinese officials.
He adds, however, that there are a number of policy initiatives Canada can pursue to help achieve this goal. First, he notes that discussions of a free trade agreement between Canada and China should be off the table for now. In addition, he suggests that Canada should increase inspections of Chinese products coming into Canada and lodge a complaint with the World Trade Organization over China’s recent decision to ban Canadian canola imports.
Since the arrests of Huawei’s Meng in Vancouver and the detentions of Kovrig and Spavor, China has barred shipments of Canadian canola on the grounds they’re infested with pests, though Canadian officials say they’ve received no evidence supporting that claim. Administrative restrictions have also impeded imports of Canadian pork, peas and soybeans.
Before moving forward, Munk School associate professor Lynette Ong warned that securing the release of Kovrig and Spavor could become a long-term diplomatic pursuit.
“I don’t think formal charges against the Michaels are necessarily bad news. The news brings with it a greater degree of certainty, whereas previously they were more or less informally charged for that crime,” Ong said.
“The government is running out of strategy. Whatever actions it takes it should consider China’s likely retaliation and penchant for tit for tat. Do we have the resolve to play this out over the medium term?”
While it’s possible, she adds that the detainees will be released when Meng’s case reaches its conclusion, calling it an “optimistic take.”
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When Trudeau was asked during a news conference in Paris about the situation, he spoke vaguely about Canada’s response.
“We continue to take the safety of the Canadians arbitrarily detained in China with the utmost priority,” he said.
Asked what might prompt him to contact China’s President Xi Jinping about the Kovrig and Spavor cases directly, Trudeau said: “What we are always focused on is doing things that are going to help the Canadians being detained, that are in difficulty overseas.”
Canada is also locked into an internal government debate over whether to permit Huawei’s technology to be used in the construction of new 5G cellular and data networks, a decision that Trudeau said would not be influenced by politics.
Some of Canada’s allies, particularly the United States, are worried that using Chinese technology in necessary communications networks would expose Canadians to Chinese espionage.
—With files from Amanda Connolly and the Canadian Press