Guest editorial

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s rejection of a deal with China over the detention of two Canadians has lent a significant twist to the extradition battle over Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. A few days earlier 19 former diplomats and politicians argued in a letter to Trudeau that “removing the pressures of the extradition proceeding and the related imprisonment of the two Michaels (former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor) will clear the way for Canada to freely decide and declare its position on all aspects of the Canada-China relationship.”

Trudeau flatly rejected this reasoning. Instead he warned that intervention by the federal justice minister—who has the power to dismiss the proceedings against Meng —would embolden China, or any other country, into thinking that “all they have to do to get leverage over the Canadian government is randomly arrest a couple of Canadians.” He added that “Going against the independence of our justice system would endanger the millions of Canadians who live and travel overseas every single year.”

It is not difficult to be sceptical about such high-sounding principles a year after an ethics commissioner found Trudeau’s own office guilty of interfering with the justice system during the SNC-Lavalin affair. One might also say that Canada’s failed attempt to win a seat on the UN Security Council would have had a better chance if its leader had shown similar defiance earlier—as he did, not so long ago, with Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, at a moment when the US president seems incapable of diplomacy that does not serve his personal political interests, Trudeau’s rebuke to China’s strong-arm tactics is a welcome surprise.

In recent months Beijing has abandoned any pretence that it will tolerate dissent in Hong Kong. Recent actions towards Taiwan and India, and what appears to have been a cyberattack on Australia, suggest that its diplomatic posture is stiffening. The combative tone of its standoff with the US—a trade war, blame for Covid-19 and criticism of the concentration camps in Xinjiang—have led some commentators to describe the situation as tantamount to a new Cold War. If they are right, China seems far better prepared than its rivals.

In the new century China has cultivated vast reserves of soft power. African countries owe it nearly US$150bn, nearly one-fifth of their external debt and most of Latin America and the Caribbean has trade relationships with Beijing which cannot be jeopardised lightly, particularly in a post-Covid economy. As the Guardian’s analyst Patrick Wintour wryly observes: “Once America’s backyard, Latin America is rapidly becoming China’s front yard. With the closer economic links come political quiescence.”

In this context, Trudeau’s stance looks more like a strategic insult. Last year while criticising countries which were too closely aligned with the One Belt, One Road initiative the European Commission described China as “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” In recent months that model seems increasingly authoritarian and ever more willing to bully its rivals into submission.

Economic liberalisation has clearly failed to democratise China despite all the neoliberal promises that free markets would produce free societies. If anything, China has shown that it is quite possible to exert exceptional leverage on international trade, debt and other economic forces while retaining an unyielding grip on its citizens.

Sadly, the current chess game will leave the two detained Canadians—held in conditions which the diplomats’ letter called “tantamount to torture”—stranded for at least a few more months. On the other hand, Trudeau’s resistance to China is a powerful reminder that not all “models of governance” are equal and that liberal democracies with independent judiciaries, freedom of speech and other anti-authoritarian encumbrances, are worth defending.

—Courtesy Stabroek News

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