In Canada’s dispute with China, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces an unappetizing choice.
He can bend to Chinese pressure and release tech executive Meng Wanzhou from Canadian custody. Or, he can bend to U.S. pressure and continue the extradition process that in all likelihood will ultimately see her sent to the U.S. to face criminal charges.
There is no longer any middle ground.
At stake is the fate of two Canadians jailed by China in retaliation for the arrest of Meng, as well as that of two more who have been sentenced to death for drug smuggling.
Trudeau had asked U.S. President Donald Trump to lobby Chinese President Xi Jinping on Canada’s behalf. But all that this has done so far, I suspect, is reinforce China’s image of Canada as an American vassal, rather than a serious country in its own right.
Beijing views the U.S. charges against Meng as politically motivated. It blames Canada for agreeing to take part in such a farce.
Indeed, politics are at play in the Meng case. A member of China’s new Red aristocracy, she’s chief financial officer of Huawei, a Chinese telecom firm that Washington views with great suspicion.
While the conspiracy, fraud and obstruction charges against her are criminal, the underlying offence — circumventing U.S. economic sanctions against Iran — is arguably political.
It should have come as no surprise to the Trudeau government that her arrest in the Vancouver airport last December would infuriate Beijing.
And fury there was. China arrested two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, on suspicion of spying. Two more Canadians convicted of drug offences, Robert Schellenberg and Fan Wei, were sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, Chinese inspectors began to find all kinds of problems with canola and meat imported from Canada. Some of these problems, such as the recent discovery of falsified export certificates used to OK pork shipments, were real. Others were less so.
Throughout, the Trudeau government’s position has been that it is merely following the rule of law. But Canada’s extradition law allows the government great discretion.
While the law requires a judicial hearing to consider any extradition request, it leaves the final decision on that request to the federal justice minister. Even if a judge rules the extradition request acceptable, the minister can legally overturn the decision.
The law is written this way in recognition of the fact that foreign relations, including extradition requests, are ultimately part of the political domain.
In short, when the Trudeau government cites adherence to the rule of law as justification for not involving itself in the Meng case, it is not being entirely accurate.
The law specifically allows political involvement. The Chinese understand this, which is why they are so irked. The only Canadian government official who seemed to understand this was former ambassador to China John McCallum. He was fired for his troubles.
All of this could have been handled differently. Trudeau says he was notified ahead of Meng’s arrest that she would be detained while changing planes at Vancouver airport. His government could have legally intervened at that point and nipped the crisis in the bud.
Who knows how the U.S. would have reacted then? Most of Meng’s alleged crimes took place when Barack Obama was in power, so perhaps Trump wouldn’t have taken personally any Canadian recalcitrance.
Trump himself also talked at one point of using the offer of Meng’s release as a bargaining chip in his trade dispute with China.
What is clear though is that any chance of quietly reaching a deal is long gone. China will be satisfied only by Canada’s complete capitulation. But capitulation is politically impossible for Trudeau. It would only feed into the opposition Conservatives’ description of him as a weak and dithering leader.
So Canadians are left in the embarrassing position of depending on Trump to get us out this mess. The U.S. president has promised to raise the issue with Xi. But will he remember? And even if he does, will his intervention help or hinder Canada’s cause?
Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.