Australia’s former foreign minister, Gareth Evans, countered with a statement on New Year’s Day calling on the Canberra government to step up its protest to Beijing.
“The Canadian arrests are deeply troubling, and it’s time for the Australian government to join those others in the international community saying so loudly and clearly.
“In the case of Michael Kovrig, whom I know personally, I am totally confident that it is only about retaliation against Canada for the Meng case and in reality has nothing to do with his or Crisis Group’s foreign policy analysis and advocacy activities in China,” Evans said.
Evans had served as chief executive of the International Crisis Group think tank. Kovrig acts as its senior adviser for North-East Asia.
Australia in many ways bears striking similarities to Canada, said Howard W. French, former China correspondent for the New York Times and author of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.
Despite being colossal in size, both countries have only moderate populations and power on the international stage. Both have a long history of migration and cultural exchange with China.
“And it turns out that they’re incredibly well-endowed with natural resources,” French said in an interview. “Precisely the kinds of resources China needs.”
China’s apparent willingness to detain Canadians for political gain despite such deep-seated cultural and economic ties represents a troubling paradigm for Australians.
With unequivocal remarks emerging from non-governmental corners — and even some official voices, such as the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary — the question remains: Why have the heads of more Canadian-allied nations not issued explicit condemnations of the detentions or called for the detainees’ release?
According to Danielle Cave, deputy head of the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, this is partly because little international consensus exists regarding the potential peril represented by China’s rise.
“It had been difficult in the past for China scholars to agree on much — but it’s telling that they have come together to advocate on this issue,” she told StarMetro.
And, as with other democratic nations, the “gap between Australian and Chinese societal values, strategic interests and commitment to a rules-based international order continues to widen. And this deep complexity hasn’t yet been adequately publicly discussed — by both the government and in the media,” Cave said.
But in recent years and months, Australia has begun to make moves that suggest a recalculation of its priorities around domestic and foreign policy.
While Australia has long welcomed trade with Beijing as well as both Chinese investors and immigrants, the island nation has become increasingly wary of the influence of its heavyweight economic associate in recent years.
In June 2018, Australia passed far-reaching national-security legislation designed to ban foreign interference in politics. The overhaul added 38 new crimes to Australian law, including theft of trade secrets on behalf of foreign states and engaging in covert activity at the behest of a foreign power aimed at influencing the Australian political process.
The legislation aligned closely with the vision of members of the Australian security apparatus but was decried by civil-rights activists who protested its overreach and pointed to the possibility of its exploitation by Australian officials who might wish to clamp down on domestic dissent.
After extensive redrafting, the new laws enjoyed bipartisan support from Australian parliament, suggesting heightened vigilance has become a permanent feature of Australia’s stance toward Beijing and other foreign powers.
Kevin Carrico, senior lecturer of Chinese Studies at Monash University and one of the signatories of the open letter to the Australian government, said the issue goes beyond the idea of medium-sized powers like Canada and Australia standing against China’s actions.
“The issues at hand are far more fundamental than that. Any country that cares about basic human rights and rule of law should be outraged by these detentions. This is the type of thing Pyongyang does, not a rising power portraying itself as the standard bearer of globalization,” Carrico told StarMetro.
Burton, of Brock University, said the degree to which a country’s economy is tied to trade with Beijing cannot help but have a profound effect on its readiness to castigate the ascendant superpower for guerrilla diplomacy or human-rights abuses.
In Canada, for instance, the current furor over whether Huawei’s involvement in building 5G infrastructure represents a surveillance opportunity for the Chinese security apparatus can only be seen through the lens of the billions of dollars it would cost companies like Bell or Telus to switch partners and make their installations compatible with another firm like Ericsson, Burton said.
“The question is always, in doing business with China, to what extent do we have to compromise our Canadian values, our commitment to the rule of law (and) democracy … to satisfy the Chinese government’s demands (and) to get the benefits of China’s economic rise,” he said.
Andrew Chubb, a fellow at the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program and a signatory to the open letter to the Australian government, said Australia’s case is further complicated by the way China’s current trade conflict with the United States could benefit its own prospects with Beijing.
“Australia is essentially not all-in on Donald Trump’s trade war,” Chubb said in an interview. “And in fact, there’s a sort of a structural ballast that mitigates against that possibility, which is that the worse the trade war gets between the U.S. and China, the more incentive China has to want to maintain its trade relationship with Australia and other countries.”
At the heart of it all, however, are the lives of average people who are being used as political tools, and that reality is unlikely to change anytime soon, said Pamela Kilpadi, director of the Boston, Mass.-based global policy research firm International Policy Fellowships Network.
“There’s a trend, in some countries around the world, to target specifically individuals who are working journalists or working for … magazines or non-governmental organizations,” Kilpadi said in an interview.
Lower-level diplomats and civil servants make especially useful “pawns” with which to extract political ends, she said. Trumped-up charges are easily levelled against such individuals due to their wide-ranging contact with all sectors, and their detentions aren’t complicated by the fury that might attend the arrest of a higher-profile politician or military leader.
Drawing from her own past experience as a family representative for an individual imprisoned in Iran, Kilpadi said the breakdown of relations between two countries at the level of leadership — because of an overarching economic dispute, for instance — means the detention of foreign nationals can be seen as a way to open up a kind of “backhanded diplomacy.”
“So sometimes it almost seems like (people like Kovrig) are targeted because of their potential to open up back-channels of communication,” she said.
The most recent detentions, however, might be a “game-changer,” according to Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific.
As recently as six months ago, he said, the Australian expert community of scholars, academics and think-tankers who study China and the rest of Asia was divided into two camps: those who prioritized security and took a hard-line on China and those who tended to advocate for diplomacy and engagement.
But that divide has broken down, he said. The open letter to the Australian government protesting the detentions — to which Medcalf himself was a signatory — was co-signed largely by members of the so-called engagement camp.
“I think the key point is that there are many people who can identify with (Kovrig) and can look at this situation and realize it could just as easily have been them in his shoes.”
There are thousands of international professionals and businesspeople who’ve made their careers engaging with China, just as Kovrig and Spavor have done.
This “worrying” development will be enough to give any of those people reason to think twice before pursuing further engagement with China, he said.
“In theory, any one of them could be subject to similar arbitrary punishment in some future situation if their own country found itself having differences with China,” he said.
“Sooner or later, I think, every democracy is going to find it has its own differences with China.”
Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter covering community issues and Canada’s drug policies. Follow him on Twitter: @perringrauer
Joanna Chiu is assistant managing editor of StarMetro Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu