The list of prominent people who think Justin Trudeau should do something different to address China’s detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor continues to grow.
The question for the prime minister — and for all those who have attached their names to one proposed course of action or another — is how much worse any alternative would be.
The easiest proposals for Trudeau to dismiss are the ones demanding that his government “get tough” with China. Prominent Conservatives have been adamant that the prime minister should impose sanctions and cancel investments. A dozen senators have now called on the Liberal government to charge Chinese officials under the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act.
During its dispute with the Trump administration in the United States, the Trudeau government repeatedly stated that it would not act to escalate a diplomatic conflict. It has taken a similar approach with China. But it was Michael Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, who in an interview with CBC News most succinctly explained why attempting to engage in tit-for-tat with a superpower is unlikely to end well.
“We cannot win a race to the bottom with China,” she said.
However “tough” Canada might get, China can always get tougher.
In addition to whatever might be happening privately between Canadian and Chinese officials, the Liberals have tried to rally Western allies to publicly condemn China’s detention of Kovrig and Spavor. Such efforts might at least ensure that China’s international reputation won’t come away from this unscathed. Maybe someday, with enough pressure, China could be convinced to retreat.
A rift in the Liberal camp over China
But for as long as Kovrig and Spavor are imprisoned, it’s still fair to ask whether the Liberals are doing enough — unless you think the best approach is to move in the exact opposite direction.
For months now, there have been calls from some quarters for the Liberals to effectively trade the freedom of Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive now facing extradition, for the release of Kovrig and Spavor.
It was Canada’s decision to apprehend Meng, in response to an extradition request made by the United States, that prompted China to apprehend and imprison Kovrig and Spavor. Soon after the two Canadians were seized, John Manley, a former Liberal cabinet minister, suggested the Trudeau government should have found an opening to let Meng get away.
Jean Chrétien was reported to be “floating” the idea of dropping the extradition case in June 2019. Six months later, Chretien’s closest adviser in power, Eddie Goldenberg, made the case for a prisoner swap in an op-ed for the Globe and Mail.
In addition to her interviews this week, Nadjibulla released a legal opinion that explained how Justice Minister David Lametti could lawfully withdraw the order to proceed with Meng’s extradition case. Yesterday, two dozen former officials — including two more Chrétien-era ministers and former NDP leader Ed Broadbent — released a remarkable open letter calling on Lametti to do just that.
The problems of a middle power in 2020
Both the argument made in that letter and the decision facing Trudeau now can be framed by a series of events that seem to have led the prime minister to this moment.
First, in 2016, Trudeau was faced with the kidnapping of two Canadian citizens — John Ridsdel and Robert Hall — in the Philippines by Abu Sayyaf militants. Trudeau publicly stated that Canada would not pay a ransom — that to do so would amount to painting a target on the back of every Canadian abroad. Both Ridsdel and Hall were killed.
Then the international order began to wobble as the United States abandoned its traditional position of leadership — and the Trudeau government found itself struggling solo to defend Canada against hostile actions by both China and Saudi Arabia.
In January 2019, about a month after Kovrig and Spavor were detained by Chinese authorities, I interviewed the prime minister and asked him whether Canada’s problems were connected to the new disposition of the United States. He agreed that had something to do with it — but he also argued that an international rules-based order has to endure somehow even when American power isn’t there to back it up.
“I think there was always going to be a moment where people have to sort of put up or shut up. Either you’re standing for the rules even as it gets awkward and difficult, and people are unhappy with you because you’re applying the rules, or you don’t,” Trudeau said.
“I am very, very serene about Canada’s positioning in this and our history that leads us to this … [about] our vision for the future that says if we don’t follow rules and we accept that might is right in the international rules-based order, then nobody’s going to do very well in the coming decades.”
In the government’s handling of Meng Wanzhou’s case, you can see elements of both Trudeau’s position in 2016 and his comments in January 2019.
“If countries around the world, including China, realize that by arbitrarily arresting random Canadians they can get what they want out of Canada politically, well, that makes an awful lot more Canadians who travel around the world vulnerable to that kind of pressure,” Trudeau said today. (Chrystia Freeland said something similar in June 2019.)
What compromise could cost us
In other words, allowing China’s detention of Kovrig and Spavor to dictate whether Meng is extradited risks sending the message that hostage diplomacy is a good way to get Canada to do what you want — that might does, in fact, make right.
Those who signed this week’s open letter do not ignore the possibility of setting such a precedent. They describe China’s actions as “repugnant” and liken it to “bullying” and “blackmail.”
But then the letter’s authors speculate creatively about how it might get worse anyway.
“[R]esisting China’s pressure is no guarantee that it will never be applied again in the future,” they write. “Indeed, if Canada resists the pressure arising from the detention of the two Michaels, China might well decide that next time it will need to escalate by detaining more than two Canadians.”
Readers can judge for themselves whether resisting China’s pressure is likelier to result in more or fewer Canadians being imprisoned. The letter’s authors might have been better off putting their argument more simply, though — by saying that while the risk of encouraging future bad actions is real, Canada should take that chance. That principles are nice, but sometimes they have to be set aside.
If there is an argument to be made for refusing the extradition, it should be built upon the actual facts of Meng’s case. If a judge or the justice minister sees credible grounds for letting Meng walk free — beyond the welfare of Kovrig and Spavor — it might be possible for Canada to bring its citizens home while keeping its principles intact.
In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that this is an election year in the United States. It’s hard to know what the current American administration will do next, who will be the president come next spring, and what, if anything, that might mean for Meng and the international order.
Today, Trudeau categorically dismissed the idea of a prisoner exchange. It was an opportunity for the prime minister to assert that his approach is based on principles.
But Kovrig, Spavor and their families are still suffering — and China isn’t the only one bearing some responsibility for that. It’s up to Trudeau to demonstrate that he is making a full and reasonable effort to bring them home. Every day that the government fails to take observable action is a day when Trudeau risks looking weak.
Principles are good and important. But they can also be cold comfort — even when the alternatives seem worse.