Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne on Monday said progress is being made in the continued push for the release of two Canadians detained in China, but wouldn’t say if it’s because of a reported deal for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
The Wall Street Journal and Reuters reported last week that a potential deal between the U.S. Department of Justice and Meng’s representatives was in the works, which would allow her to return home to China with a deferred prosecution agreement.
Champagne said the federal government won’t comment on pending legal cases, but said Ottawa is following developments in Meng’s case “very closely.”
The minister instead highlighted Canada’s efforts to bring the “arbitrary detentions” of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to international attention.
He pointed to a statement released from this past summer’s bilateral summit between China and the European Union, which mentioned Kovrig and Spavor, as an example of liberal democracies working together to fight against China’s “coercive diplomacy.”
“I would say to you, find me other cases which are raised to the extent that the case of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been,” he said.
“This case is emblematic of the type of coercive diplomacy we’ve seen. And I think we’re standing up very clearly, very strongly as liberal democracies to say that’s completely unacceptable. They need to be released.”
Thursday will mark two years since Kovrig, a former diplomat, and businessman Spavor were arrested and detained in China — just days after Meng’s arrest in Vancouver in December 2018. Beijing has charged the two Canadians with espionage, but officials have still not provided detailed evidence to explain why.
Meng, Huawei’s chief financial officer, was arrested on a warrant from the United States on charges of bank fraud over allegations related to U.S. sanctions against Iran that both she and tech giant Huawei deny.
Relations between Canada and China immediately soured upon Meng’s arrest and have only worsened as the executive and her lawyers continue to fight extradition to the U.S.
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China has suggested that Kovrig and Spavor could be freed in exchange for Meng’s release, prompting calls for Canada to end Meng’s extradition to allow for the two men’s release.
Champagne said he will continue to work with the U.S., other Five Eyes allies like the United Kingdom, and other countries to push China for the “two Michaels” to be returned to Canada.
He would not say if he felt President-elect Joe Biden’s administration would be better partners in that fight than that of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been accused of politically interfering in Meng’s case by suggesting she could be used as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with China.
“I think more than ever, this administration and the next administration have realized that the way to face China when it comes to, for example, coercive diplomacy is to work together,” he said.
Champagne said ongoing talks with China finally led to resumed consular access to Kovrig and Spavor last month, although restrictions were put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The “on-site consular access” meetings saw Canada’s ambassador to China Dominic Barton visit the separate facilities where the men are being detained and talk to them through a camera.
“That was a step forward that we wanted to see and … we will continue to insist it be granted,” Champagne said.
The minister did not give details on Kovrig and Spavor’s conditions, but said their families are being updated.
“Certainly we’re making sure that we do everything we can to ensure their well-being, as we would do for Canadians which are detained abroad,” he said.