“The unlawful detention of two Canadian citizens is unacceptable; they ought to be returned,” Pompeo said.
“The United States has stood for that, whether they are our citizens or citizens of other countries. We ask all nations of the world to treat other citizens properly,” said Pompeo. “And the detention of these two Canadian citizens in China ought to end.”
To date, the Canadian government has not formally protested China’s arrest of the men as “unlawful,” nor demanded their immediate release or return to Canada. It has taken a publicly measured approach, while stressing it is “deeply concerned” about their well-being.
Earlier Friday John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, was granted consular access to one of the men, Kovrig, in Beijing, four days after his arrest, according to a news release by Freeland’s department.
Canadian diplomats will be granted access “shortly” to the second Canadian (Spavor) detained in China, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday, as he predicted consequences for Canada’s economy from the U.S.-China trade war.
“We seek consular access, which we’ve gotten already in one of the cases, and are going to have in the second case shortly,” Trudeau told The Canadian Press Friday. “We’re hopeful that it’ll happen soon.”
Freeland provided no details about Kovrig’s condition, and insisted the government’s priority is still to determine the basis for their detention and to gain consular access to Spavor, whom McCallum has not been allowed to visit. Citing the detainees’ privacy, Freeland and her department refused to say more.
Neither Canada nor China has publicly linked China’s arrest of the Canadians on Monday to Canada’s arrest on Dec. 1 of one of China’s corporate elite — Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou — at the request of the United States. But many observers believe the moves were a classic tit-for-tat retaliation against Canada for acting at the Americans’ behest.
The Americans initiated extradition proceedings against Meng earlier in the fall, saying the Huawei chief financial officer and deputy chairwoman is wanted on fraud charges centred on an alleged plan to bypass Iran sanctions.
The Chinese government is outraged over her “wrongful detention” and had threatened Canada with “grave consequences” before moving in to seize the Canadians in separate Chinese cities on Monday.
In an interview aired on CityTV, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did finally appear to tie the cases together.
Asked about strained relations between China and Canada, Trudeau called the men’s detention “unacceptable.”
“China is reacting to the arrest of one of their citizens, but we are being absolutely clear on standing up for our citizens who’ve been detained, trying to figure out why, trying to work with China to demonstrate this is not acceptable,” he said.
The Canadian prime minister also took a more direct shot at both China and the U.S. President Donald Trump, who suggested Meng might be released if he could get a better security or trade deal with China. He said Canada will follow the rule of law and due process.
“Other countries can politicize their judicial system or make arbitrary actions,” Trudeau told Citytv in Toronto. “We are going to demonstrate that the best way not just to protect our citizens, but to support the jobs, the future, the stability that Canadians expect is by standing up for our values in a clear unequivocal way that protects our interests.”
Trudeau said he was, nevertheless, worried about Canada’s relations with China and with the U.S. and the overall impact of global tensions.
“This is one of the situations you get in when the two largest economies in the world, China and the United States, start picking a fight with each other. The escalating trade war between them is going to have all sorts of unintended consequences on Canada, and potentially on the entire global economy. So we’re very worried about that,” he said.
Freeland, on the other hand, hewed to the line that China had not yet been explicit about its reasons for arresting Kovrig and Spavor, saying they are “different issues.”
“From Canada’s perspective these kinds of issues ought never to be confused with one another,” said Freeland. “In the detention of Ms. Meng, Canada was acting scrupulously in line with our treaty commitments and in line with the rule of law.”
Pompeo was asked whether the U.S. actions have led to Canada and two Canadians becoming collateral damage in a U.S. trade war with China, especially after inflammatory remarks by U.S. President Donald Trump this week. Pompeo said, “I don’t see it that way.”
He said the U.S. justice process is unfolding, adding the U.S. has “lots of complicated issues with China” and would respect the rule of law “each step along the way. We’ll do that here as well.”
Asked if the U.S. would actively work to help Canada secure the Canadians’ release, Pompeo said: “We always work on it and we’ll do it for this case as well.”
Freeland thanked Pompeo for the statement.
She nevertheless delivered a rebuke of the U.S. President, stressing several times the extradition process should not be “politicized.”
“It is very important for Canada that extradition agreements are not used for political purposes. Canada does not do it that way and I believe that it is obvious that democratic countries such as our partner the U.S. do the same,” she said.
Roland Paris, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a former foreign policy advisor to Trudeau, said it’s possible the Liberal government’s measured tone is because “they are still trying to leave space for China to find a way to release the two Canadians without losing face.”
“I think it’s not unwise to gather the facts,” said Paris. “I think the Canadian government is trying to strike a balance here between serving the interest of these two individuals and secure their release, and trying to keep the temperature down so the Chinese might back off.”
He said it is a hard balance to strike, and “it’s a moving target.”
“I don’t think Canada has an interest in blowing up the relationship, but, at the same time, we have to assert our interests strongly.”
Yet the Chinese government is making no bones about what it calls Meng’s “wrongful detention,” demanding again Friday that Canada “correct its mistake and release Ms. Meng Wanzhou.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Chang who had earlier said Kovrig and Spavor were detained for engaging in unspecified activities that harmed Chinese state security, said “their legal rights and interests have been safeguarded.”
Earlier in the week, Lu had said the International Crisis Group, where Kovrig works, had failed to register as an NGO as required under law.
Kovrig’s employer, released a statement late Friday calling for his release.
ICG president Robert Malley said, “Michael’s arrest is unjust. He should be freed immediately.”
The group said Kovrig’s work for ICG and for the Canadian embassy was always done in an open transparent manner.
“In neither of these roles has he done or could have done anything to endanger China’s national security,” Malley said.
“The real danger to China comes from Michael’s arbitrary arrest and detention for these will have a chilling effect on people wanting to visit and engage with the country.”
“I am particularly grateful for the lead role that Canada is playing in seeking Michael’s release, and for all their help in reassuring us and Michael’s family that everything is being done to bring him home safely.”
Despite it all, Trudeau insisted that he will continue to engage with China.
But it is clearly no longer business as usual.
Canada and China on Friday agreed to cancel or postpone a trip Tourism Minister Melanie Joly was to take to China next week, one day after she said that she still planned to travel there to further Canada-China tourism.
Canada Goose, the luxury outdoor wear brand, has delayed the opening of its new store in Beijing, citing construction reasons, even as its stock took a hit.
—with files from The Canadian Press
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc