China Testing Trump in Canada

In a courtroom in Vancouver, British Columbia, a case with geopolitical significance is underway. Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer for Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei was arrested on December 1, 2018, pursuant to a warrant issued by the U.S. Department of Justice related to the company doing business in Iran despite international sanctions through a shell company designed to disguise linkages to Huawei itself.

It is possible that Meng was aware that the U.S. government had issued a warrant for her arrest, as she chose to fly to Mexico through Vancouver, not transiting through the United States. Then again, she owned a home in Vancouver and had many friends in the city and perhaps felt safe in Canada, where Mandarin is the third most spoken language after English and French.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also likely seen by China’s business community to be friendlier toward China than the United States under President Donald Trump has been to China or to Canada for that matter. Trudeau’s father established relations with China in 1970, before the United States did so.

In October, Trudeau said that Canada was open to allowing Huawei to participate in building Canada’s 5G network. This after a meeting in Canada in July of the intelligence agency chiefs of the Five Eyes group including Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States agreed to try to contain Huawei access to Western networks.

This may explain the shock and anger expressed by Beijing and the Chinese business community when news of Meng’s arrest surfaced. Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland responded that Canada was obliged to act on a legitimate warrant from its ally the United States, that due process and the rule of law would be respected, and Meng would be able to challenge her extradition in court before a judge.

Then on December 12, President Trump told Reuters that he was willing to intervene in Meng’s case if it produced a breakthrough in trade talks with China. In doing so, Trump undermined Canada’s claim that it was following the law not engaging in a U.S. led strategy for pressuring China economically.

Beijing reacted, not against the United States, but against Canada. Two Canadian citizens working in China were arrested : Michael Kovrig a former diplomat now working for the International Crisis Group and entrepreneur Michael Spavor. Canada protested, and the U.S. State Department condemned the arrests and called for the release of both Canadians. A total of 13 Canadians have been arrested in China since December 1.

Then, on January 9, China’s ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye, wrote an op-ed for the Hill Times in which he accused the Canadian government of a having a double-standard that excuses Canadians who break Chinese law and calls for their quick release while condemning China for acting to defend its citizen Meng. Lu wrote:

“The reason why some people are used to arrogantly adopting double standards is due to Western egotism and white supremacy. In such a context, the rule of law is nothing but a tool for their political ends and a fig leaf for their practicing hegemony in the international arena. What they have been doing is not showing respect for the rule of law, but mocking and trampling the rule of law.”

Complicating matters further, Canada’s ambassador to China John McCallum, a former cabinet minister and the only Canadian ambassador apart from Ambassador David MacNaughton who briefed cabinet in person (rather than going through the foreign minister) commented publicly on January 24 on the merits of the Meng extradition case:

“I think Ms. Meng has quite a strong case. [. . .] One, political involvement by comments from [U.S. President] Donald Trump in her case. Two, there’s an extraterritorial aspect to her case, and three, there’s the issue of Iran sanctions which are involved in her case, and Canada does not sign on to these Iran sanctions. So I think she has some strong arguments that she can make before a judge”

Prime Minister Trudeau accepted McCallum’s resignation on January 26.

Whose Side Are You On?

The U.S. Department of Justice filed numerous charges against Huawei on January 28 that will likely sustain the formal extradition request for Meng Wanzhou filed on Friday. Provided that the Canadian court finds the request in order, Ms. Meng will be transferred to U.S. custody. Canadians will continue working for the release of the hostages taken by China, still in legal peril. The crisis in Canada-China relations is not over, but the Trudeau government has stayed true to its commitments to the rule of law and its ally the United States under tremendous pressure from Beijing.

Yet Washington policymakers should understand this situation as a test of U.S. resolve, not of Canada’s. With the re-emergence of Great Power rivalry, we can expect more tests like this. Great Powers seek to avoid direct conflict because it is costly and risky, and so they probe weaknesses in rival camps, taking shots at soft targets in order to see how their rival reacts.

Last August, the Canadian foreign ministry tweeted criticism of the Saudi arrest of Samar Badawi, a women’s rights activist who is the sister of imprisoned dissident blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife is a Canadian citizen and lives in Quebec. Riyadh reacted ferociously, breaking off diplomatic relations, canceling planned Saudi investments in Canada, and ordering Saudi medical students at Canadian universities to return home immediately.

The United States did not react, publicly or privately, as stunned Canadian diplomats tried to repair relations with another U.S. ally for damage caused by nothing more than speaking up for Canadian citizens. When Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul two months later, there was some feeling of vindication in Ottawa that the world now could see why Canadians were concerned about the Saudi treatment of journalists, but it was a cold comfort.

U.S. silence when an ally was threatened by another ally damages both these alliances and U.S. prestige. China’s treatment of Canada in the Meng case could weaken the United States’ campaign of economic and diplomatic pressure in China by driving a wedge between Washington and longstanding U.S. allies.

Will China’s tactics succeed? Perhaps, but if so, the United States will have been an accomplice. Trump’s personal disparagement of Trudeau after the June G7 Leaders’ Summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, the harsh treatment of Canada in the renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and complaints about Canada’s military spending have already caused some Canadians to doubt that the United States values Canadian diplomatic and military support at all.

In 1938, then-U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in which he explained the limits of U.S. neutrality and isolationism as Canada joined Britain and France to confront Germany in the Second World War. "The Dominion of Canada is part of the British Empire,” he said, “I give to you assurance that the people of the United States will not stand idly by if domination of Canadian soil is threatened by any other empire."

China is testing the Trump administration by attacking Canada. For how long will the United States continue to stand idly by? The answer may determine the fate of U.S. primacy.

Christopher Sands is a senior associate (non-resident) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior research professor and director of the Center for Canadian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Christopher Sands

Christopher Sands

Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program