In its diplomatic battle with China, Canada could use some backup. But its closest ally, the United States, seems to be occupied waging other wars.
Since Canada arrested a Chinese technology executive on U.S. charges in December, China has hit Canada hard, detaining two Canadians on vague allegations and stopping some imports of canola oil, a key Canadian product.
The U.S. officials seeking to extradite Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, offered Canada a polite “thanks” for arresting her. But as China punishes Canada for fulfilling the U.S. request, there has been little help from the White House, which is focused, for now, on cutting a trade deal with China.
The Canadian conundrum was on full display Wednesday, when Meng appeared in a Vancouver courtroom to set a timeline for her upcoming extradition hearing.
Meng and her lawyers are due back in court in September. Her lawyers plan to argue that her arrest was an “abuse of power” and that she should not be extradited to the United States.
An exasperated Canada, meanwhile, will be bracing for further political or economic retaliation from Beijing — and no longer expecting much from Washington.
“Not only are we navigating around a hostile China, but we need to do that without all the guarantees and protections that we have had in the past,” said David Mulroney, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.
The Canadian conundrum raises a question familiar to small countries that have found themselves in China’s bad books: How do you stand up to a soon-to-be-superpower, particularly without clear, consistent U.S. support?
So far, Canada has struggled.
The conflict between Canada and China started with Meng’s arrest in December on charges that she violated U.S. sanctions law by misstating her company’s relationship with a subsidiary.
Her arrest outraged Beijing. Soon, two Canadians in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were detained on national security allegations that have yet to be explained.
Then, a Canadian who had been sentenced to 15 years in a Chinese prison for drug smuggling was hastily retried and sentenced to death.
Beijing has cast Meng’s arrest as a politically motivated foreign plot to contain China.
Ottawa has argued her arrest was a routine law enforcement matter, stressing that Canada was adhering to the terms of its extradition treaty with the United States and that Meng will be treated just like anyone else — an argument it expected to be echoed by the United States.
Instead, President Trump shocked both Canadian and U.S. officials by tweeting that he would consider intervening in Meng’s case if it could help him secure a favorable deal on trade.
In court on Wednesday, the defense suggested they will use the tweet to make their case against extradition to the United States. Meng’s lawyers have argued that the tweet shows the political nature of the charges.
Outside the courtroom, a representative of Huawei said Meng’s arrest was unlawful.
In the months since Trump floated a deal, U.S. officials have tried to get back on message, expressing the country’s commitment to the rule of law and, at a news conference to unveil a range of charges against Huawei, thanking Canadian allies for their help.
“We expect all countries to adhere to the rule of law, and by considering the United States’ request for Ms. Meng’s extradition, Canada honored its international legal commitments and treaty obligations,” a spokesman for the State Department wrote in an email response ahead of the hearing.
“We continue to express our deep concern for the Chinese government’s arbitrary detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.”
Still, uncertainty over the U.S. position lingers.
Canadian officials know that a Trump tweet is not a policy statement and have tried to engage other U.S. officials. They have regularly raised the detention of the two Canadians with American colleagues.
Jim Carr, Canada’s minister for international trade diversification, said the government is discussing the situation with allies “literally every day.”
“When you need your friends, you talk to your friends about how you need them,” he said during a visit to Washington this week. “Our American allies are aware of the situation.”
Some are frustrated that this awareness has not translated into action.
Canada’s ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton, has pointed out that Canada is cooperating with the United States on several fronts, including Venezuela and NATO. He told Reuters last week that it might be less inclined to continue that assistance if it keeps getting nothing back.
“How do you go to canola farmers and relatives of the two [Canadian detainees] and say, ‘Well, actually, notwithstanding all of this, we’re going to try and do whatever we can to help’?” he asked.
“It makes it much more difficult in public-opinion terms for the prime minister to have permission to do some of the things that would be in both countries’ interests.”
A Canadian official familiar with the issue said Canada was not about to change course on questions of foreign policy such as the crisis in Venezuela — but is indeed exasperated.
“We hope they will help us anyway,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “This is causing some pain on our side, and we want to see a meaningful commitment from the rule of law on their side.”
Carr’s job is to find new trading partners for Canada, which has long been heavily dependent on the United States. He said the dust-up reaffirmed the importance of his mandate.
“It makes sense, both in the medium and the long term, to develop other relationships, because you don’t know how bilateral relationships will go.”