Michael Kovrig embraces his wife Vina Nadjibulla, left, and sister Ariana Botha on September 25
Last Friday, Meng Wanzhou, 49, Huawei’s chief finance officer and the daughter of the founder, agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in which, according to the Associated Press, she “accepted responsibility for misrepresenting the company’s business dealings in Iran.”
This enabled Meng, detained in Canada for the past few years, to return to China. In return, the Chinese government released two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who had been arrested in China soon after Meng had been charged.
Meng agreed not to contest any of the U.S. government’s factual allegations, which suggests that the Justice Department was pursuing a righteous prosecution. Kovrig and Spavor, on the other hand, were arrested on “vague espionage charges” that no one believes were valid.
The near-simultaneous release of the two Canadians when Meng was allowed to return to China suggests that Beijing was consciously pursuing a strategy of hostage-taking to ensure the return of Meng. Indeed, the Chinese government widely circulated a video of a post-release Meng saying: “Thank you motherland, thank you to the people of the motherland. You have been my greatest pillar of support.”
This obvious quid pro quo has rankled some China observers, who view it as appeasing or rewarding Beijing for bad behavior. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board characterized the swap as “humiliating.” China scholar Donald Clarke told the New York Times that, “in a sense, China has strengthened its bargaining position in future negotiations like this.”
It seems hard to deny that China has set a precedent here: If Western officials arrest a prominent Chinese citizen, the Chinese government will retaliate by arresting citizens from that country on trumped-up charges and imprisoning them until a trade can be made. This is just another in a long series of data points demonstrating the erosion of long-held norms in international politics.
[It should be noted here that Donald Trump, when he was president, contributed to the erosion of these norms when he suggested that Meng could be released if the Chinese considered making trade concessions. The Times wryly quoted John Bolton from his memoirs: “Trump made matters worse on several occasions by implying that Huawei could be simply another U.S. bargaining chip in the trade negotiations.”]
Despite this hue and cry, the China hawks that I take seriously — see Elizabeth Economy or Tom Wright — were sanguine about this deal. And taking a closer look at it, I can see why. For one thing, the prerelease status quo was horribly unfair to the two Michaels who had been seized.
As the AP noted, “[Meng had] been out on bail living in a multimillion-dollar mansion while the two Canadians were held in Chinese prison cells where the lights were kept on 24 hours a day.” Just letting things drag out was inconvenient for Meng; it was far worse than that for the two Michaels.
More significantly, this entire episode cost China a great deal in terms of its bilateral relationship with Canada. It is worth remembering that when he was first elected in 2015, Justin Trudeau was a big fan of reaching out to China and strengthening bilateral ties. Canada was taking steps like hosting the hemisphere’s first renminbi trading hub in Toronto.
Perhaps the removal of this irritant will thaw relations between the two countries, but Canadian public opinion suggests otherwise. Pew survey data shows that Canada now holds historically unfavorable views of China, as do other surveys.
It would be very difficult for Trudeau to try to return to his pre-hostage-taking position on China — a point that experts raised in the coverage by both the Times and The Post. Friend of the blog and Canadian security expert Stephanie Carvin told me, “There is basically no desire for renewed ties with China right now.” She pointed out that in the recent election all three major political parties had planks in their platform about getting tougher with China.
That Pew study also shows “unfavorable views of China are also at or near historic highs” across the U.S. alliance system. So this episode suggests that China has accomplished a short-term goal at the cost of poisoning the well across a wide array of advanced industrialized democracies.
The same day that the Canadian hostages were released, the Quad held their first in-person summit and pledged to “stand for the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity of states.” That is the largest subtweet of China I have seen yet in 2021.
So yeah, China got Meng back by taking hostages, but at a pretty high cost. It seems hard not to agree with Hal Brands and Michael Beckley’s assessment in Foreign Policy:China confronts an increasingly hostile external environment. The combination of COVID-19, persistent human rights abuses, and aggressive policies have caused negative views of China to reach levels not seen since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Countries worried about Chinese competition have slapped thousands of new trade barriers on its goods since 2008. More than a dozen countries have dropped out of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative while the United States wages a global campaign against key Chinese tech companies — notably, Huawei — and rich democracies across multiple continents throw up barriers to Beijing’s digital influence.
The world is becoming less conducive to easy Chinese growth, and Xi’s regime increasingly faces the sort of strategic encirclement that once drove German and Japanese leaders to desperation.
I am not worried that China’s hostage-taking represents a strengthening of their bargaining position. I am worried that it reveals deep Chinese fears that the country has already peaked and now faces a tougher road ahead than it previously anticipated. Declining powers are always more concerning than rising powers in the short run.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
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