Huawei and China’s ‘Hostage Diplomacy’

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Huawei and China’s ‘Hostage Diplomacy’

Insights from Van Jackson.

Huawei and China’s ‘Hostage Diplomacy’
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Van Jackson, professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, is the 296th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

What does the release of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and the Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor reveal about China’s “hostage diplomacy”?

Something we’ve known about the Communist Party of China for a while is that it stresses holism and linkages in dealing with foreign policy issues. It really is the valence of the larger relationship that dictates everything else. So China’s turn toward hostage diplomacy should be seen as one of many tactical expressions of rivalry. This also means law does not prevail above political expedience; it is subordinate to it.

What is Beijing’s calculus behind this hostage diplomacy, and will it be used with greater frequency?

China’s willingness to engage in hostile diplomacy shows the resolve of the state to act in support of Huawei, which is an agent of the state. I think that was also the intention: create leverage and establish grounds for a quid pro quo. The politicized detainment of the two Michaels was a calibrated, rational act. Beijing doesn’t have any one go-to tool for statecraft, but hostage diplomacy is clearly part of its repertoire now.

How should U.S. and Western governments prepare for China’s use of hostage diplomacy in the future?

There’s very little you can do to prevent another state from engaging in hostage diplomacy. We’re in a post-jetsetter world where there’s very real personal risk of being physically in China, but statistically speaking it’s not anything to worry about. I think the best the U.S. and Western governments can do is simply to make clear to business travelers that there is this politically based personal risk of traveling to China. It’s like the State Department warnings about the hazards of traveling to North Korea, but less acute of a problem.

What are the repercussions of the Huawei extradition case on the U.S.-China tech race?

Sino-U.S. tech competition predated the Huawei hostage diplomacy saga, and it will endure well after it. I see the charges against Meng Wanzhou as somewhat incidental to the larger U.S. effort targeting Huawei. If you’re a “Western” tech firm, you should price in a lot of geopolitical risk when making decisions to work with Chinese firms or operate in the China market. But that should’ve been the case before Huawei already.

Assess the impact of the Huawei debacle on U.S.-Canada relations and Canada-China relations.

The Huawei saga empowered the foreign policy “hawks” in Canada, to the extent that’s a thing. It provided confirmation bias for those who were already skeptical of China, and Canada had been receiving ample pressure (from the U.S. and U.K.) to do more to confront China. Prior to Huawei, Canada broadly had few concrete reasons to antagonize China given their economic relationship and their generally liberal foreign policy. Canada finds itself in a position of being wary of the U.S. but also more aligned with it than China. It’s doing the hedging-between-the-great-powers dance that many Asian countries do, but under the peculiar circumstances of being the victim of hostage diplomacy with China while having the U.S. as its neighbor.