Trudeau: Ottawa's negotiation position with China on detained Canadians' release not weakened

Ottawa does not feel its negotiating power with Beijing has weakened when it comes to the release of two Canadians detained in China in relation to the Meng Wanzhou affair, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today.

This week, a group of 19 prominent former Canadian politicians, diplomats and other officials - including former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour as well as federal foreign ministers Lloyd Axworthy and Lawrence Cannon - signed a letter to the federal government asking for an end to the extradition proceedings against Meng, who is wanted in the United States.

As well, Vina Nadjibulla - Kovrig’s wife - spoke out in support of the idea of freeing Meng, the CFO of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. who faces fraud and money-laundering charges (among other allegations) south of the border.

This morning, Trudeau reiterated he disagreed with the letter’s position, adding that he does not view the differences of opinion as a sign of internal weakness in Canada’s negotiations with China for the two Michael’s release. 

“As a democracy - as a country that encourages the freedom of expression - there’s always going to be different perspectives on what a government should do and how a government should do it,” Trudeau said. “I very much respect those eminent Canadians, even as I disagree with them. It’s a hallmark of a strong and free society that we can have big debates on really important issues while, at the same time, the government can be unequivocal about our approach to this issue.”

Kovrig and Spavor have recently been formally charged with espionage in the Chinese court system, just weeks after Meng lost her first major battle to stave off extradition to the U.S. (with B.C. Supreme Court associate chief justice Heather Holmes ruling Crown prosecutors’ case for the double-criminality requirement for extradition was met).

Meng was arrested at Vancouver International Airport on Dec. 1, 2018; Kovrig and Spavor have been in Chinese jail since around that time, as well.

Trudeau previously mentioned Ottawa may consider taking measures against Beijing. Suggestions have included enacting the Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act - which would freeze the assets and ban entry of those seen as human rights offenders. A possible revocation of Chinese student visas has also been suggested by some, but Trudeau declined to wade into the debate on if and when Canada could get tougher on China.

“We will continue to do the things that are necessary, but as I have said, some of it is public, some of it is diplomatic and behind the scenes,” he said, adding the focus involves not only a bilateral line of communication with Beijing, but also working with allies in the West to maximize the chance of Kovrig and Spavor being released.

“Obviously, this is a long and difficult process for the families of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor,” Trudeau noted. “… That is why we are working extremely hard behind the scenes. We are working very clearly in public, as well, rallying partners and allies from around the world who continue to highlight to China their concerns not only about the fact they have arbitrarily detained two Canadians, but also the concern their citizens could be next in this approach to put pressure on foreign governments that China seems to have undertaken.”

He also noted he has been “pleased” with the foreign response so far.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on China to release Spavor and Kovrig, calling the charges against them “groundless.” Canadian diplomats have not been able to visit the two men since January due to what Chinese officials term as COVID-19 restrictions.