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Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are free: what does this mean for Canada-China relations?

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadian men arrested almost three years ago by the Chinese Communist regime, are on their national soil after the legal dispute involving Huawei leader Meng Wanzhou was partly resolved by the American prosecutors.

Shortly after his announcement Friday night that Kovrig and Spavor had been released by Chinese authorities, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Marc Garneau boarded an overnight flight aboard a jet from the government to greet the two men back on the Calgary airport tarmac.

A government official with first-hand knowledge of the situation said the delegation was “very inspired by the resilience” of the two Michael’s and the “truly remarkable” happy ending to a situation that looked bleak just days ago.

The pair were in good spirits, sometimes even jokingly, as Trudeau and Garneau greeted them and Canada’s Ambassador to China Dominic Barton, back home after the grueling ordeal, the source said. After cups of coffee and other light refreshments in an airport hangar, Spavor remained in Calgary while Kovrig boarded another flight to Toronto to reunite with his family.

The timing of Kovrig and Spavor’s release contradicts Beijing’s claim that their 2018 arrests had no connection to the Meng case, experts said. The coordinated release makes it clear that the two men, once accused of spying by Beijing, were detained in retaliation for Meng’s arrest on charges of fraud in the United States.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands with Foreign Minister Marc Garneau in Ottawa on Friday to announce that Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig have been released from their detention in China. (Justin Tang / Canadian Press)

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Trudeau dodged questions about how the affair and the release affected Canada’s relations with China, saying “there will be time for reflection and analysis in the days and weeks to come “.

“It’s really a slap in the face against Beijing”

But China watchers say the incident irreparably damaged Canada’s relations with the Asian superpower – deteriorating bilateral ties that seemed to be strengthening only four years ago when Trudeau attempted to strike some sort of trade deal with the Asian superpower. diet.

“This is really a slap in the face to Beijing. They refused to admit that this is hostage diplomacy, but it is now completely undeniable that the two Michael’s were unfairly detained due to Meng’s arrest. said Lynette Ong, associate professor of political science at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, and an expert on China and authoritarian politics.

“I don’t think Canada-China relations can be mended. We now live in an entirely different world,” Ong said.

As the country celebrates the end of this 1,020-day nightmare and the safe passage of Kovrig and Spavor, discussions in official circles now turn to how Canada will grapple with an increasingly China. hostile – a country that had no qualms about jailing innocent people to protest the actions of a foreign power.

Throughout Meng’s dispute, Ong said, Canada has been on the sidelines as other Western partners like Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States strengthen their multilateral relations through a new pact of security called AUKUS to challenge China’s hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.

Leaders of the “Quad” group of countries – Australia, India, Japan and the United States – also met on Friday to continue discussions on how best to counter the growing influence of China in a region that is critically important to China. global security and prosperity.

“Canada is considered an outlier among Western democracies. We’ve been very reluctant, very reluctant to take a tough stand one way or another. I guess the Liberal government was waiting for the outcome of the two Michaels. Since this matter is now settled, we must state our Chinese policy loud and clear, ”Ong said in an interview.

Michael Kovrig kisses his wife, Vina Nadjibulla, after arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Saturday. (Frank Gunn / Canadian Press)

“China is a rising world power. We just cannot afford to be caught in this situation again, to be passive, without a strategy,” she said. “China may have underestimated the cost of detaining the two Michael’s. I think the ramifications will be very long lasting.”

Strengthening sanctions against hostage-takers, according to a former ambassador

In an interview with CBC Radio The House, Guy St-Jacques, former Canadian Ambassador to China, said Ottawa’s top priority must be to strengthen the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations negotiated by Canada. The agreement, signed by 57 other countries in February, was drafted to send a message to China and other warring countries, such as Russia, Iran and North Korea, that the democratic West will not tolerate this form. of “diplomacy” and conflict. resolution.

Michael Spavor leaves Calgary airport after returning to Canada after more than 1,000 days in a Chinese prison. (Colin Hall / CBC)

Now that the two Michael’s are at home, St-Jacques said, Canada and its allies must impose tough penalties on those who dare to defy international standards in the future.

“We have to agree on the sanctions we could apply against China if it ever resorts to this hostage diplomacy,” St-Jacques said. “This is sending a very powerful message that this kind of bullying cannot continue. We need to bite it.”

“We have to make sure that China does not practice hostage-taking again, because to some extent they will say it worked,” added Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat. “Meng is coming home because of what they did. There will be people in China who say, ‘It works, we have to do it again. “We must now agree that there will be sanctions.”

Protesters in Ottawa hold up placards calling for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor during the march for the Michaels on September 5, which marked 1,000 days the two Canadians were already detained in China. (Justin Tang / Canadian Press)

But Robertson said imposing sanctions on potential hostage-takers should not mean the end of diplomatic relations with China.

“We have to engage with China – it’s the rising power. We don’t agree with them on human rights and surveillance, but we still want to trade with them,” he said. declared. “We have to work with them. Otherwise the world will become very difficult.”

Jérôme Beaugrand-Champagne, lawyer and lecturer in Chinese law at McGill University’s Faculty of Law, said that, for too long, Canada had put its economic interests ahead of other considerations, preferring to maintain financial ties with the most populous country in the world rather than denounce it for mischief.

“Unfortunately, the federal government has no Chinese policy. They have been pressured to do so, but they prefer to continue their trade missions to China,” he said in an interview.

“We saw them trying to buy vaccines from a Chinese company. It’s time to put aside only a trade policy with China and consider our other interests,” he said, saying reference to a possible Chinese interference that would have occurred in the recent federal elections and the mysterious debacle of the Winnipeg microbiology laboratory as justification for a more aggressive attitude towards China.

Parliament has already indicated that it is ready to go further than Trudeau and his cabinet in condemning China not only for its aggressive political art, but also for its continued abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province and its crackdown on democratic rights in Hong Kong.

“China’s violence has been fully exposed” (Senator)

Earlier this year, the vast majority of lawmakers voted in favor of a conservative motion calling China’s actions against Uyghurs and other Turkish Muslims “genocide.”

“Free” and “just a labeling exercise”.

In a Friday tweet, Woo said it was a happy day for “#MichaelKovrig #MichaelSpavor #mengwanzhou and their families,” prompting a reaction from some who saw the social media post as equating what The two Canadian men endured in the Chinese prison at Meng’s home arrest in his multi-million dollar mansion in Vancouver.

In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou waves as she steps out of a plane after arriving at Shenzhen Bao International Airport on Saturday. year in Shenzhen, in the province of Guangdong (south of China). (Jin Liwang / Xinhua via AP Photo)

Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, who has been one of Canada’s leading voices calling for a tougher approach to China, said on Saturday that the hostage-taking of Spavor and Kovrig requires a strong response from Ottawa.

“Now that the two Michael’s are at home and the brutality of the Chinese Communist regime has been fully exposed for what it is – what we have known from the start – Canada can no longer continue to deal with this regime as it is. ‘honest brokers,’ Housakos said. in a statement to CBC News.

“We need to act quickly and decisively to send the message that what happened here will no longer be tolerated,” he said. “We must stand up against uncontrollable tyrants who so blatantly and proudly flout the rule of international law.”

For starters, Housakos said, Trudeau must “immediately announce that he is banning Huawei from our 5G network” and pledge to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. He said Canada needs to start weaning itself off “cheap goods” made in China and instead pursue trade ties with countries that are more ideologically aligned.

Conservative Senator Leo Housakos has said Canada must take a hard line on China now that Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been released. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

While Canada’s largest wireless carriers have previously shied away from doing business with Huawei, there has been no formal Ottawa executive order prohibiting the Chinese telecommunications giant from building the country’s critical infrastructure. As for an Olympic boycott, Garneau said it’s a decision best left to the Canadian Olympic Committee.

“China is a very real and growing threat,” Housakos said. “Canada needs to start treating it like one.

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