Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has urged caution and warned against political posturing as domestic pressure grows following the detention of the third Canadian in China amid a diplomatic dispute over the arrest of a Chinese technology executive.
The detentions of the Canadians – including the one disclosed on Wednesday – followed the December 1 arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.
Meng’s arrest was made at the request of the United States, which wants her extradited to face charges that she and her company misled banks about the tech firm’s alleged sanctions-breaking business dealings in Iran.
The subsequent detentions of Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a Canadian entrepreneur, on vague suspicion of “engaging in activities that endanger the national security” of China have raised suspicion that Beijing is holding them in retaliation for Meng’s arrest.
Former Canadian diplomats have said they believed the detentions were a “tit-for-tat” reprisal by China, however, no link has officially been made between the cases. Meng was released on bail last week in Vancouver.
On Wednesday, Trudeau said the third Canadian detained does not seem to fit the pattern of the two previous ones, with no national security charges listed, and raised the possibility of it being a visa issue.
“There are tens of thousands of Canadians that live, travel and work in China,” Trudeau told a year-end news conference, adding that officials were working to get more details.
“[The first two people arrested] were accused of serious crimes, problems regarding national security, intelligence, so those cases are more serious,” Trudeau said.
“We’ve only got the preliminary indications … that it’s not linked to a matter of national security for the Chinese,” he said, adding that the first two cases were “very different” from a routine case or a problem with a visa, for example.
Asked at what point he might escalate his concerns to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trudeau said political posturing or statements are not necessarily going to help those detained.
“Escalation or very strong political statements can actually end up being counterproductive,” Trudeau said.
“Escalation and political posturing might be satisfactory in the short term to make yourself seem like you are stomping on the table and doing something significant, but it may not contribute to the outcome we all want.”
But opposition leader Andrew Scheer said, “Enough is enough.”
“It’s time for the prime minister to pick up the phone, call President Xi, demand the safe return of Canadians held by Beijing. Any detention of Canadian citizens for political or diplomatic reasons is completely unacceptable,” Scheer wrote on Twitter.
The arrest of Meng came amid efforts by the world’s two largest economies – the US and China – to resolve a bitter trade war and set off a diplomatic spat in which Canada is stuck in the middle.
President Donald Trump complicated matters by saying he might intervene in the case if it would help clinch a US trade agreement with China – much to the consternation of Canadian officials who said the arrest was not political and they were just following their extradition treaty obligations.
Beijing has threatened Canada with “grave consequences” if Meng was not freed and Chinese state-run media has lashed out at the arrest saying it was politically motivated.
Bob Rae, Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar and a former Liberal Party leader, on Wednesday wrote on Twitter that “there are no coincidences” and said the detentions looked “too much like hostage taking”.
An official at the Chinese embassy in Ottawa said the embassy had no information to release on the issue.
David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said it would be highly unusual if the third arrest is a coincidence. “It’s possible but I find it unlikely,” he said.
Mulroney said it would be a problem for Canada and China. “One detention is bad enough. Two is terrible. Three underlines how ruthless China can be,” he said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, has called for China to release the Canadians, saying their detention was “unlawful” and “unacceptable”.