Playing hostage diplomacy? Beijing Chooses Day of U.S.-China High-Level Dialogue to Try Canadian Citizen

Chinese authorities chose the day of the high-level U.S.-China dialogue to begin the trial of two Canadians who have been in custody for more than two years. This comes after the U.S. said it would not accept the arbitrary detention of foreign citizens as diplomatic leverage.

In a statement Wednesday (March 17, 2021), Canada‘s Department of Foreign Affairs said, “Our embassy in Beijing has been notified that the trials of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig (Chinese name Kang Mingkai) will take place on March 19 and 22, respectively .”

The statement said, “We believe their detention is arbitrary and continue to be deeply troubled by the lack of transparency regarding the legal process.”

March 19 Chinese Time was the same day that U.S. White House National Security Adviser Sullivan and Secretary of State Blinken met with Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party‘s Central Political Bureau in charge of foreign affairs, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Anchorage, Alaska, the largest city in the United States.

The choice of this day to begin the trial of the two Canadians is seen as a move by Beijing to increase pressure on the U.S. side and give itself more bargaining leverage ahead of the high-level Sino-U.S. dialogue.

In December 2018, Canadian authorities arrested huawei‘s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who was in Vancouver for a transit flight, in response to an extradition request from the United States. A few days later, Chinese authorities arrested the two Canadians on the same day and filed formal charges against them last June for “spying on state secrets and intelligence for foreign countries” and “stealing and illegally providing state secrets for foreign countries.

In two phone calls with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau since taking office on Jan. 20, President Biden condemned the continued detention of the two Canadian citizens and promised him that the United States would do everything possible to secure their release.

At the Feb. 23 video summit, Biden said, “Let me reiterate our support for securing the release of the two Canadians detained in China, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Human beings are not bargaining chips. You know, we’re going to work together until we get them back safely.”

U.S. officials have previously said that such hostage diplomacy by China would not succeed.

After signing the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, drafted at the initiative of Canada on Feb. 15, Secretary of State Blinken said, “Now is the time to send a clear message to every government that arbitrarily detains foreign citizens and tries to use them as bargaining chips: the international community will not tolerate it.”

Although the declaration does not name the countries that arbitrarily detain citizens of other countries, the Chinese government was quick to express its “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition” to the declaration, saying it had made solemn representations to the Canadian side.