Almost two years after Meng Wanzhou’s arrest in the Vancouver airport, the Huawei executive may be heading home soon. According to Reuters, the United States Department of Justice is ready to make a deal with the telecom giant, offering Meng a deferred prosecution in exchange for an admission of wrongdoing in the allegations against her.
This could be welcome news for Canada who arrested her following an extradition request from the United States, where she is wanted on fraud charges related to a violation of sanctions against Iran. This arrest placed Canada directly in China’s crosshairs. In retaliation, two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, were arrested and detained in Chinese prisons, where they’ve remained for over two years. Meng’s extradition was widely seen as a bargaining chip in Donald Trump’s trade war against China. Caught in the middle, Canada has been the target of trade sanctions on canola, soybean, beef and pork exports, leading to a 16% decline of exports to China in 2019. While this potential deal in tandem with a Biden administration could lead to softer relations with China, there are still many longstanding issues that must be solved before Canada can celebrate.
Last month, Canadian Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced new measures to allow permanent residency for Hong Kong students, despite Chinese officials repeatedly denouncing Canada for interfering with what they see as internal affairs. In October, a parliamentary committee issued their report on the Uighur minority in China, concluding the treatment amounted to a genocide. In response, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian scolded Canada, demanding that Canada “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Xinjiang-related matters” to avoid further damaging Canada-China relations. And yet, a few weeks later, newly appointed Ambassador to the United Nations Bob Rae, called for an investigation into China’s treatment of the Muslim minority. As well, the Conservative Party of Canada has consistently criticized the Chinese Communist Party and introduced a number of motions in the House of Commons condemning their actions.
Speaking to CTV News, Macdonald-Laurier Institute Senior Fellow Charles Burton said Canada should not be confident that the return of Meng would bring Canada any closer to getting Kovrig and Spavor back, as China may continue to hold them to exert pressure over other political matters. Burton pointed to the sanctions and hostage diplomacy China has continued to use against Australia, saying it does not bode well for Canada. Over the past few months, relations between China and Australia soured as Beijing detained a Chinese-born Australian journalist after Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan. While Australia and China did sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) along with 13 other countries, even state-backed media said that this major agreement would not mend ties.
As Australia contends with its own strategic relationship with China, there have been many calls for Canada to re-examine its relationship with China. In June, 19 former diplomats, judges, and public figures wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling on him to release Meng Wanzhou and redefine his approach to China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry used this to their advantage, saying “it could open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians.”
Yet even if Meng reaches a deal and does leave Canada, this is not a guaranteed prisoner swap. Though this could lessen the pressure on Canada, there are still many factors that will impact Kovrig and Spavor’s return.
Canada has yet to make a decision on whether or not to ban Huawei, and this will be a delicate decision so long as Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are still detained. However, if Meng is back in China, Trudeau may have an opportunity to begin to reset relations and chart a new course where Canada is able to get the “two Michaels” back. Just after President-elect Joe Biden won the federal election, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne stated that Canada’s relationship with China is always evolving. Meng Wenzhou’s return to China could be the next step in this evolution, even if it is not the final conclusion.
Rachel Hanes is a first year Master’s student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, specializing in international organizations and global public policy. Her research interests include global diplomacy and Canada’s foreign policy.