China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Canada and the US-China Geopolitical Tug of War

The latest news in the Meng Wanzhou case barely registered amid COVID-19.

By Aadil Brar for
Canada and the US-China Geopolitical Tug of War
Credit: Flickr/ Kārlis Dambrāns

The geopolitical and geoeconomic conflict between the United States and China has been at the center stage of world affairs since U.S. President Trump announced trade tariffs and launched a global campaign against China’s telecommunications giant Huawei. At end of November 2018, even as  Trump and Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Argentina to discuss the ongoing trade tensions, U.S.-China relations were about to enter a new phase.

On December 1, 2018, the city of Vancouver on the west coast of Canada made the news all over the world. On that day, Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, was arrested by Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police on a U.S. extradition request.

Meng was on her way to Mexico from Hong Kong, passing through Vancouver, a city she called home for a long time and where she owns two large homes. Meng is accused of using the U.S. banking system to do business with Iran while it was under U.S. sanctions in 2013.

Meng is not only Huawei’s CFO; she is also the daughter of Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei, a former member of the People’s Liberation Army who launched the company in the city of Shenzhen in 1987. And Huawei itself is more than a company; it is considered a national symbol of China’s technological prowess.

Thus the Chinese Communist Party considered Meng Wanzhou’s detention a personal attack on its story of progress. The intensely personal dimension of this case can be gleaned from the heated rebukes published in China’s state media and the statements made by China’s ambassadors to Canada.

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On January 7 2020, China’s state-owned paper Global Times said in an article titled “Time for Canada to correct mistakes on Meng case” that the “Meng case is by no means a pure judicial case, but rather a political persecution launched by the U.S., with the intention to contain China’s high-tech development.”

“Canada boasts rule of law, but Meng’s arrest — which should not have happened — violates that. Nevertheless, for political reasons, the Canadian government has abused the extradition treaty with the U.S. and let this obvious violation of the rule of law hang for more than a year. Such move is a stain to the history of the country’s rule of law,” the article added.

When Meng Wanzhou was arrested, public sentiment in Canada was initially largely indifferent to the U.S. demand to detain Huawei’s CFO. But that changed after China detained two Canadian citizens — Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – in what was widely seen as retaliation for Meng’s detention. There is a growing pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to seek the return of Canadians detained in China. Both Spavor and Kovrig had been held for over 500 days.

Meanwhile, Canada’s souring public perception of Iran have also rebounded onto Meng. On January 8, Ukrainian flight PS752 was shot down by an Iranian Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile. Among the 176 who died on the plane were 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents of Canada. The shooting down of the PS752 has changed Canada’s public opinion of the Iranian regime.

Canada’s judicial system will surely act independently of the politics, but public opinion has moved against Meng Wanzhou – and by, extension China’s government — both because of the detention of two Canadians and the PS752 incident.

Canada-China relations had been complicated since December 2017, when Canada’s pivot to sign a free trade deal with China fell through. Prior to Meng’s detention, there was growing pressure on Canada from the United States to ban Huawei from building its 5G network. Washington argues that if Ottawa continues to do business with Huawei, it will complicate Canada’s participation in the Five Eyes and Two Eyes intelligence sharing alliance. Meanwhile, China continues to pressure Canada to allow Huawei to participate in building its 5G network.

Canada’s relationship with the United States has its own bittersweet history because of recent events around trade. Trump imposed sanctions on some Canadian products and forced Ottawa to renegotiate the new NAFTA trade deal, also referred to as USMCA.

The ratification of USMCA by all three parties has reduced the pressure on Canada from the U.S. side. Experts believe that letting Meng return to China will ease domestic tensions within Canada, and it could result in the release of detained Canadians. Chinese state media has repeated the line that the ball is in Canada’s court, which is also considered China’s official position.

Meng Wanzhou would be released if the Supreme Court of British Columbia decides that the extradition case fails to meet the requirement of “double criminality.” In extradition treaty law, “double criminality” means that the charges against Meng must be a legal offense in both Canada and the United States. Meng’s legal defense team has argued that Canada didn’t have sanctions like those imposed by the United States on Iran in 2013. Therefore, the accusations against Meng would not meet the standard of double criminality in Canada.

On April 27, Justice Heather Holmes of the Supreme Court of British Columbia for the first time announced steps toward a decision on the question of double criminality in Meng’s case. Holmes added that a notice will be issued three days prior to a decision on Meng’s case. Yet the news has gone unnoticed in the international media because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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The trial has been adjourned until June 15, 2020*, which means a decision on the case could come this summer. If the court decides to release Meng, lawyers from Canada’s attorney general’s office could still appeal. Likewise, if Holmes allows the extradition proceedings to continue, Meng’s defense team will fight the charges on other grounds. Either way, the case could drag on for months, if not years.

There is no clarity as to which way the court will decide, but regardless, the decision on Meng’s case will act as a tipping point in growing geopolitical tensions between the United States and China – with Canada caught in the middle.

Aadil Brar is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada. His work can be viewed at www.aadilbrar.com.

*Update: On May 21, the British Columbia Supreme Court said it would issue a judgement on the double criminality question on May 27th.