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Canada doesn't need U.S. permission to call China and bring the two Michaels home

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his recent virtual meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

It appears China has thrown Canada an unexpected lifeline, offering us a chance to redeem our relationship with the world's No. 2 economy and save the two Michaels.

Is Justin Trudeau up to the challenge?

On Friday, the Chinese government put Michael Spavor on trial for espionage in Dandong on the country's eastern border, where the Canadian operated a cultural exchange company that promoted business and investment in next-door North Korea. He is said to have personal ties to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The closed trial only lasted a couple of hours, but instead of finding him guilty, clapping him in irons and hauling him away, the Chinese court adjourned without a verdict -- giving Canada a little more time to bring the matter to a more satisfactory conclusion.

The other Michael, Michael Kovrig, is scheduled to go on trial Monday in Beijing on spying charges.

Meanwhile, Meng Wanzhou, the high-profile Chinese high-technology executive with close ties to the country's government, remains under house arrest in Vancouver. She was detained by the RCMP in December 2018 during a stopover at Vancouver's airport at the behest of U.S. officials, supposedly for fraudulently covering up violations of American sanctions on Iran.

Donald Trump, then the Republican U.S. president, stated openly at the time he hoped to use Huawei's chief financial officer as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with China.

The two Michaels were arrested in China soon after, and there is little doubt this was in response to Meng's arrest.

Under these circumstances, arguably both those two Canadians in Chinese jails and the Chinese citizen held in Vancouver can fairly be called hostages.

The impasse has continued ever since, while Meng fights her extradition to the United States and the case is pursued unabated by President Joseph Biden's Democratic administration.

At a news conference in Ottawa yesterday, Prime Minister Trudeau focused on the lack of transparency in the Calgary-born Spavor's trial. This has been a theme of Canadian media coverage in the past few days, contrasting the closed trial with the openness of Meng's extradition hearings.

Arguably, though, this compares apples and oranges. All Western countries maintain the right to closed trials when espionage and national secrets are involved. Secret trials in such matters have recently been held in both Australia and the United Kingdom, our Five Eyes allies. The United States has a special court empowered under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to conduct secret trials and impose secret punishments.

By contrast, no national security issues are at stake in the extradition proceedings in Vancouver.

Regardless, the urge for the prime minister to thump the podium for the hometown press was understandable, especially in the face of constant heckling by opposition Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, who argues preposterously that taking a harsher line with China would somehow help to free the two Michaels.

But like the frequently repeated claim Canada has no choice but to hold Meng and hand her over to U.S. authorities, because to do otherwise would supposedly go against the rule of law, this is not particularly helpful.

In light of the spurious nature of the U.S. charges, Canada would hardly be ignoring the rule of law by allowing Meng to return to China. Since her detention was obviously intended to placate the Trump administration, our government could end it at any time without damage to our extradition law.

And by arresting two men whose resumes suggest they were well positioned for spying, the Chinese government seems to have been trying to make the case it is the party acting in accordance with the rule of law and the rules-based international order, unlike the U.S. government that Canada was assisting.

Meanwhile, Meng's Canadian lawyers have been arguing Canadian police and customs officials denied her access to a key witness, questioned her on matters only of interest to U.S. police, and tried to help American FBI agents hack into her electronic devices.

So what is to be done before a verdict is rendered against Spavor and Kovrig and it becomes much more difficult to extract our citizens from China's prison system?

Instead of crossing our fingers and outsourcing their rescue to the United States -- which has an obvious interest in leaving them where they are -- maybe it's time for Canada to act like the sovereign nation we insist we are and talk to China ourselves, as we were quite capable of doing when our prime minister's father occupied the same office.

Seriously, does Trudeau require the permission of the United States to pick up the phone and ask to speak to the president of China? If he does, we can stop pretending right now to be a sovereign nation.

The Biden administration might not like it if he did. The U.S. State Department certainly wouldn't. Global Affairs Canada would probably break out in hives. But so what? It's said here we would earn more respect among the family of nations by calling the highest Chinese official who would answer than by kowtowing to the empire next door.

What's more, there's no reason Trudeau couldn't tell Biden, who so recently was singing his praises, "Let's you and I work together to share the credit for accomplishing something while we still can!"

Perhaps we could even do some good for the other 120 or so Canadians imprisoned in China, who for some reason our government is not nearly as enthusiastic about repatriating.

U.S. officials might grumble, but we would earn more respect from Americans for doing that too.

If we send Meng to the United States to disappear into its penal gulag, China will naturally pivot to negotiating with her kidnappers. We will be written off as irrelevant by the leaders of the world's second-largest economy, perhaps soon the largest.

In addition to earning the contempt of the world, recent history suggests we would get nothing from the United States for our co-operation except to be taken even more for granted.

Of course the Conservatives won't like it. But they have nothing to offer but pointless belligerence and pipsqueak sabre rattling.

So what about it, Mr. Trudeau? Are you a prime minister or a mouse?

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

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