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COMMENTARY: Trudeau is right to reject call to swap Meng Wanzhou for the ‘Two Michaels’

Trudeau says caving to China’s demand to release Meng Wanzhou would put Canadians in danger
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says heeding a recent call from some prominent Canadians to politically intervene to end the extradition proceedings against Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou“will imperil thousands of Canadians travelling in China and around the world.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has emphatically rejected a call by several prominent Canadians to politically intervene to end the extradition proceedings against Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and send her home to China in exchange for the freedom of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

To do so would “imperil thousands of Canadians travelling in China and around the world,” Trudeau said.

Read more: Caving to China’s demand to release Meng Wanzhou would put Canadians in danger: Trudeau

The dismissal of a petition signed by a retired Supreme Court justice, several former cabinet ministers, ambassadors and former prime ministerial chiefs of staff, as well as comments earlier in the week by the families of the Two Michaels, was made during the prime minister’s daily remarks about Canada’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The bigger question is whether or not we want China or other countries to get the message that all they have to do to get leverage over the Canadian government is randomly arrest a couple of Canadians,” Trudeau said, his face showing some irritation at the mention of the petition.

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In zeroing in on this point, and that he wanted to be “crystal clear” that Canada’s judiciary is independent, the prime minister signalled that his government is acutely aware how this ugly drama is being watched closely in many foreign chanceries and capitals that also have serious issues with China.

Can Canada end Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case?
Can Canada end Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case?

Beijing badly wants to swap Kovrig and Spavor for the Huawei heiress because she and her billionaire father are regarded in China as something like Communist Party royalty. That China began to sound desperate to get something done became obvious after Meng lost the first round in her extradition hearing before a British Columbia court. It found that the charges she faces in the U.S. would be considered crimes in Canada.

Meng is wanted by the U.S. to answer several allegations of stealing trade secrets and of fraud involving tens of millions of dollars for Huawei’s 5G cell telephone technology that would circumvent American sanctions against Iran.

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I infer Beijing’s increasing panic from its sudden willingness Thursday to formally link the Meng case with that of the Two Michaels for the first time and to declare that it was open to trading prisoners.

The linkage was acknowledged by Zhao Lijian, who is one of China’s top foreign ministry spokespersons.

China welcomes detained Canadian’s wife’s comments
China welcomes detained Canadian’s wife’s comments

Zhao’s remarks were tantamount to Beijing acknowledging that it had kidnapped the two Canadians and held them hostage for 18 months exclusively for just such a purpose. To raise the ante further, China finally charged the Canadians with espionage last week. It will try them in a Communist Party court that convicts virtually every accused.

To give in to China undermines attempts by western and Asian countries to counter Beijing’s constant bullying. Never to be forgotten is that President Xi Jinping is like a Tony Soprano. You don’t do deals with such a strong man. He deals with you.

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My strong opposition to acquiescing to China is partly informed by my personal experience with the kidnapping of a Canadian for ransom in Baghdad and of two Canadians in the southern Philippines.

It was in Mindanao April 2016 that Robert Hall and John Ridsdel were beheaded after Trudeau stated that Canada would never negotiate with those who seized Canadians as hostages.

Ridsdel was a friend of mine. He had invited me to join him in the south. The Canadian embassy in Manila advised me that it was too dangerous there. For once, I accepted their counsel.

Knowing Ridsdel made supporting Canada’s position on hostage-taking extremely difficult. Despite my feeling terrible for him while he was captive on a jungle island and facing death, I put aside my anguish and did not change my opinion. To have done so would have made me reverse a bedrock principle that I’d held for many years and would have meant endorsing ghastly behaviour.

Read more: Prominent Canadians call on Trudeau to end Meng Wanzhou case to free 2 Michaels

Is there a substantive difference between the situation in Mindanao and the current impasse with China? I’d say no, they are similar.

But the consequences are greater today because it is a state actor that has kidnapped the two Canadians, not a ragtag gang of terrorists. To capitulate four years ago in the Philippines or today would have been to reward evil and give China’s odious practice of hostage-taking diplomatic licence.

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It is a certainty that refusing China’s brazen offer of a prisoner swap will dearly cost the Two Michaels, their families and Canada. It already has.

On the other hand, doing such a prisoner exchange would destroy the noble democratic principle that Canada’s courts are free from outside interference. It would also further complicate frosty relations between Ottawa and Washington.

Read more: Feds could abandon Meng Wanzhou’s case now if they wanted to: ex-minister, lawyer

This is not just true because Donald Trump and the Republicans control the U.S. political process. The Democrats, too, would regard this as Canada caving to China’s demands after one of its citizens was accused of committing a heinous criminal act that would abet Iran and that would encourage the budding relationship between Beijing and Tehran.

Sometimes forgotten by Canadians today is that whatever the cost of not doing the prisoner swap that an ascendant China wants, the U.S. remains Canada’s top trading partner by far and protects Ottawa’s security interests in Europe and Asia.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s statement rejecting a swap was unequivocal and most welcome. The prime minister has vacillated or done about-faces on other serious issues. For Canada’s reputation and honour, he must stick to his June 25 pledge.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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