Superpower spat over Meng Wanzhou highlights Canada’s lightweight international clout

The sorry saga of the detentions of Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor and Meng Wanzhou appears at last, at last, at last, to have reached its senses – thankfully, of course, that the two Michaels and not just Meng were released.

What a spectacle.

What a debacle.

What a misguided escapade.

What an exhibit of superpower egos.

What an exhibit of Canadian weakness next to them.

Friday saw the Vancouver-held Huawei Technologies CFO accept the assertions (but not assume the guilt) of some, but not super-serious, wrongdoing in exchange for a deferred, soon-dropped prosecution by the United States. A logical consequence is presumed to be imminent release of the two innocent Canadians. It happened. What a coincidence, eh?

Spavor and Kovrig were arrested and tried on trumped-up charges when the Donald Trump administration decided Meng’s capture was a way to pick a fight with China. Canada got caught in the crossfire, obliged to apprehend Meng under a treaty with the United States and subject her to a protracted extradition hearing that ultimately, and thankfully for many others, never produced a decision.

The Canadian court was only months away from a ruling that, had it gone the wrong way, would stoke fears in international executives travelling through Canada that they could be next – just as China’s arrests of the two Michaels made many Canadian executives think they could be next.

Meng was an available pawn in Trump’s determination to demonstrate his version of geopolitics with China and his aversion to the new world order. Soon after she was stopped at Vancouver International Airport, the two Michaels were stopped on the streets (along with about 120 more we haven't heard about) and put in cells that bore no resemblance to the Shaughnessy mansion Meng occupied under house arrest.

The Michaels were on a plane going one way and Meng was on a plane going the other way. Coincidence? You decide.

Canada was left to pay the price for American insistence that China pay the price. This was not something Canada expected nor a resolution it could expedite. For nearly three years, it has been a miserable, embarrassing, tragic standoff.

Spavor is serving an 11-year sentence and Kovrig is awaiting sentencing following his trial. Chinese media indicate the offences that have detained them for more than 1,000 days are that Spavor, a businessman, took pictures of military equipment and sent them to Kovrig, a diplomat. Their supposed transgressions were light stuff compared to the U.S. allegations that Huawei stole technology secrets from an American company and did business with Iran in defiance of U.S. sanctions.

But China nevertheless wanted to signal its displeasure with Canada in plucking one of its top executives off her flight path at the U.S. Department of Justice’s behest. The two Michaels were presumed leverage to get Canada to plead with the United States to let her go. Instead, America flipped the bird and the adventure awaited a change in administration – and months and months after that – to seriously undertake resolution. The spectre of a court ruling might have helped accelerate matters.

In these sorts of cases in America, people don’t typically go to jail – companies are penalized, not people. China had a point in arguing that a corporate allegation was personalized, and it was not unreasonable to pin this exceptional animus on the last White House occupant. He fits the type.

In the hours Friday that it took Meng to appear virtually from her lawyer’s office before a Brooklyn court hearing, then hoof it over to the Vancouver court to hear that the extradition process was now moot, China was quiet on the two Michaels.

But it is fair to expect that they will soon experience freedom – and, in comparable terms to Meng, that will be by far the most profound definition of freedom of the three detainees.

If you’re wondering about the timing, how the impact of her release might have been different, say, last week in the final days of the Canadian election campaign, well, it cuts both ways.

For his part, Justin Trudeau held firm to uphold the rule of law at home to deny China’s pressure to free Meng. Better that principle than to deny the United States the opportunity to employ the extradition process.

But the episode has proven Canada is impotent in protecting its citizens abroad from an abrogation of basic tenets of justice. It was ineffective, even in appointing a new ambassador with business experience in China, from gaining their release or even their decent treatment.

The two Michaels were held in tiny, all-day-lit cells the way Canada wouldn’t even treat serial killers; by comparsion, Meng was permitted the liberties of most everyone in Vancouver and move about with an ankle bracelet and a security detail. Throughout, officials and official Chinese media often sneered at Trudeau and the team.

There will continue to be serious questions on whether Canada carries anything beyond rhetoric in its relationship with its second-largest trading partner; we already regularly learn how little clout we have with our largest one.

It also raises questions about Trudeau’s reticence to call out the mistreatment of the Uyghur Muslims, democratic suppression in Hong Kong, threats to Taiwan and military display in the South China Sea. What is the endgame here?

On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to matter to China. We are inconsequential as a smaller power. As the two Michaels are released, the best that Trudeau can hope is that Canadians can forgive and forget. But not the mess we're in. We got them back because we gave them back.

No matter, we’ve looked like the pipsqueaks on the world stage we may have to admit we are.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.