With the exchange of the two Michaels for Meng Wanzhou, experts say hostage diplomacy appears to have worked for China, for now.

Political and legal experts couldn’t believe what they were hearing Friday night.

Just hours after US prosecutors withdrew an extradition order and allowed Canada to release Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, China announced that Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor would also be released.

After years of denying that the imprisonment of the two Michaels for espionage had anything to do with Meng’s arrest for fraud, China appeared to have dropped the charade. This was hostage diplomacy, and it seemed to have paid off.

“I’m shocked by what happened yesterday, really shocked,” said Stephanie Carvin, associate professor of international relations at Carlton University. “China has been doing its best to try to argue that the two incidents are completely separate. Letting the two Michaels go, even before Michael Kovrig received his sentence, shows exactly what it’s all about. ”

The diplomatic implications of China’s hostage-taking, at first glance as successful as it is blatant, are murky. China appears to have gotten what it wanted and may now intimidate its exit from future extradition efforts, but experts told the Star this could still have consequences for the country.

Lynette Ong, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said that while Meng’s return is lauded in her home country, bringing her home will have a negative and lasting impact on the way the world views China.

“Even though, domestically, Meng’s return was triumphantly received as a sign of Chinese power, internationally people have really turned against China for it,” Ong said. “China has paid a tremendous cost in the process. Its international reputation has really been tarnished as a result. “

Errol Mendes, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said there are now two emerging schools of thought about what prompted China to release the Michaels quickly enough to remove the doubt that they were hostages.

“This could be Xi Jinping telling the world ‘We are strong now, we can face it regardless of what he thinks of us,’ but I am not completely convinced of this,” he said. “I think there was some kind of discussion between President Biden and President Xi, where Biden pointed out that Xi had more to lose if he stayed with the Michaels for a few months than if they released them immediately. In time, we will find out more. ”

Ong said the situation has set an “unprecedented precedent” in terms of hostage diplomacy. He said it will affect how the arrests of Chinese executives will be carried out in the future, if there is a cause.

“This shows that we are sending the wrong signal, that hostage diplomacy works,” Ong said. “I think if the United States asked any partner country to make an arrest on its behalf now, no one would.”

Ong said that if a situation like Meng’s were to emerge again, where the United States sought to criminally charge a high-profile Chinese national, the United States would have to send its own personnel to make the arrest.

What happened to the Michaels would act as a strong deterrent to America’s allies, he said, who will likely be too nervous to comply with future extradition requests.

Julian Ku, a constitutional law professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, called this intimidation effect a “real victory” for China, adding that Canada and the United States were “naive” in thinking that the Chinese government would respect its judicial process.

“It’s great that the two Michaels were released, but overall, this is a loss for the United States and Canada,” Ku said. “It is unlikely that the deal to send Meng home would have been the same as they would have been had there not been pressure that China basically has two hostages.”

Ku said Meng was allowed to return home and escape criminal responsibility “undermines the legal system of the United States and Canada and their ability to prosecute and get people to cooperate with extradition.”

Carvin said that if it is China’s victory, it is Pyrrhic. As part of the agreement that allowed Meng to return, Meng had to admit that the US case against him was factual, which she had denied until this week.

“In the short term, maybe China got what it wanted,” he said. “But in the long run, this will have created some problems for him. I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of a senior Huawei official admitting wrongdoing and signing his name on a document that says that. The Americans now have some ammunition, which could play an important role in the future. “

Carvin argues that Canada must now focus on creating a strong foreign policy, adding that neither side, in his opinion, put enough effort into it.

“It is not just the liberal party,” he said. “The NDP put more strategy in its Tik Toks than in its foreign policy. Conservatives have a lot of strong rhetoric, but not a lot of ideas for implementations. All parties have ignored very serious global affairs issues and have figured out how we are going to relate to the world. “

Ong said there was probably nothing Canada could have done to hasten the Michaels’ comeback, given the “passive and reactive” position Canada was in.

“Canada worked tirelessly behind the scenes to negotiate and negotiate with the United States and China to secure the release of the Michaels, which is what led to today’s outcome,” he said. “I think this happened as fast as it could have happened.”

Ku, admitting his frustration with the situation, agreed.

“There is not much that Canada could have done differently,” he said. “The other side was willing to play dirty.”

Ben Cohen is a Star staff reporter in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn


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