Wednesday’s legal setback in Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou‘s extradition battle drew sharp condemnation from both Huawei and the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, which once again called on Canada to immediately release her.
But despite the bitter political divide between the two countries, experts say China’s retaliatory actions over the court ruling will likely not go much further than those statements — mainly because the coronavirus pandemic has already put China on the defensive.
The Supreme Court of British Columbia dismissed Meng’s argument that her case didn’t meet the standard of “double criminality,” where the fraud charges she’s facing in the United States would also be considered a crime in Canada.
The decision means Meng continues to face possible extradition to the U.S. where she’s accused of lying to a bank in order to violate sanctions against Iran, which she and the Chinese telecommunications giant have denied.
While Canada has been caught in the middle of the dispute between those countries — and faced its share of blowback from Beijing — that dynamic may be starting to turn towards Canada’s favour.
“Beijing has so many things on its mind right now, I don’t think coercion or pressure on Canada is actually top of mind anymore,” said Lynette Ong, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who is an expert on China and foreign affairs.
“Six months ago, Canada was fighting China one-on-one, and there was no way we could fight them one-on-one. They’re too powerful.
“But over the past couple of months, with the pandemic, there’s been a global backlash against China. And if Ottawa is smart about it, they should be riding that wave.”
Over 100 countries, including Canada, have backed an independent inquiry into the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the resolution doesn’t single out China, which also signed on, Australia has been leading calls for Beijing’s initial handling of the outbreak to be investigated.
Paul Evans, a professor at the University of British Columbia specializing in global affairs, agrees that China simply doesn’t have enough capital on the global stage to further antagonize Canada, which remains a key trading partner despite some sanctions between the two.
Listen: Why fate of ‘two Michaels’ is uncertain
“Even as angry as Chinese officials may be (about the Meng decision) … I think there’s enough other negative issues in the relationship now that additional pressure is not something China will push at this point,” he said.
“There will be, maybe, a cooler, realistic head in China (who will realize) that this isn’t going to advance their cause.”
Beyond the pandemic, Evans also cited the growing outcry over China’s proposed national security law for Hong Kong as another blow to Beijing’s international standing. The legislation, which many fear will strip Hong Kong of its democratic autonomy, has further soured relations with the U.S., which has also played hardball over trade.
Canada, the United Kingdom and other Western countries have joined the U.S. in denouncing the bill.
Fate of ‘two Michaels’ unclear
Despite China’s dimming stature on the world stage, Ong and Evans say the relationship with Canada, while not necessarily worsening, will not be getting better anytime soon.
That puts the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were detained by China on “suspicions” they had threatened the country’s national security just nine days after Meng’s arrest in December 2018, into question.
“The two Michaels” have been held in solitary confinement and without access to lawyers ever since, although they have yet to be formally charged with a crime.
Ong says that will likely not change despite the new twist in Meng’s case.
“If I’m Beijing, I wouldn’t do that because that exhausts your options, it exhausts your bargaining chip,” she said. “It could drag on for awhile. Whether the outcomes are favourable or unfavourable, we don’t know yet.”
Evans is less optimistic.
“I can say confidently that this is not a plus in terms of the situation for our two Michaels,” he said.
“That’s something we’re just going to have to confront and push as hard and effectively as we can for their release.”
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said after Wednesday’s decision that the federal government’s top priority remains securing the immediate release of Kovrig and Spavor, along with Canadians like Robert Schellenberg who are facing the death penalty in China.
Evans says Ottawa should be prepared to face more pushback and delays from China in those fights, now that the courts have dealt Meng — and Beijing — a serious blow.
“I think many had hoped in Canada that this could be a quick way out of a horrible trap that we have been caught in by the American request (for Meng’s arrest and extradition), and we were hoping that we could move step by step into a positive atmosphere,” he said.
“This has not improved the atmosphere.”
— With files from David Lao, Abigail Bimman and the Canadian Press