Two detained Canadians in China — one of them facing a trial Monday morning on espionage charges — are a “pawn in a bigger geopolitical confrontation” between the world’s two superpowers, according to an expert.
Colin Robertson, a fellow and vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said that the trials of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig come as a precisely-timed move to exert pressure over the United States.
“The timing of the trials are an effort to place pressure on the Americans, by demonstrating they can do this to America’s closest ally — Canada,” said Robertson, who cited the meeting between Chinese and American national security officials in Anchorage over Friday and Saturday.
“So in a sense, the two Michael’s are pawns in a bigger geopolitical confrontation between the rising superpower and the current superpower.”
Robertson’s comments come hours before Kovrig’s scheduled appearance in court and three days after Spavor’s trial — the latter of which lasted two hours and ended without a verdict.
According to Reuters, the charge d’affaires of the Canadian embassy in China said that he was repeatedly denied after requesting access to Kovrig’s hearing over national security reasons.
“Now we see that the court process itself is not transparent,” Jim Nickel told reporters outside of the Beijing courthouse after the trial began.
“We’re very troubled by this.”
Reuters also reported that dozens of diplomats from 26 countries including the U.S., U.K., Germany, Australia and the Netherlands appeared in front of the courthouse on Monday in a show of solidarity.
China’s detention of the two Canadians — which has previously been called “arbitrary” by officials including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — is widely believed to be in retaliation for the RCMP’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou on extradition charges to the United States.
Robertson says that he expects to see is a repeat of Friday’s trial on Monday, and that even though both cases “are different,” they would most likely be handled in the same fashion.
“But we could be surprised, which is why we have to wait and see,” he added.
A statement from Global Affairs Canada (GAC) sent after Robertson’s interview with Global News confirmed that Canadian officials would not be granted permission to attend Kovrig’s trial on Sunday. GAC also confirmed to Global News earlier this week that Canadian officials were not granted access to Spavor’s trial as well.
“According to the terms of our bilateral consular agreement, China is obligated to provide access to Canadian consular officials to the trials of Canadian citizens,” read the statement.
GAC said that the agency is “deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings.”
According to University of Ottawa Senior Fellow Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, the verdict from either of the two cases could take some time should Kovrig’s trial end the same way Spavor’s did.
In either case, McCuaig-Johnston said that she expects both Kovrig and Spavor to be found “100 per cent” guilty by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“I think they might have some hope this is going to result in them leaving and going home, and I doubt that’s going to happen,” she said.
“In fact, normally it’s more than 99 per cent found guilty in the Chinese system but in cases like this that are clearly political — I think we would expect to see 100 per cent found guilty. That is what the Party determined will be the verdict,” she said.
McCuaig-Johnston’s sentiments were also shared by Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc, who spoke with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson on Sunday.
During the interview, LeBlanc criticized the Chinese government’s judicial process, saying that such a trial “doesn’t meet the basic standard of fairness, of respect for the rule of law.”
“It’s the kind of coercive diplomacy that China seeks to engage in and it’s fundamentally opposed by Western democracies, by Canada, by our allies including the United States,” he said.
“If the conviction rate is almost 100 per cent and there’s no transparency, there’s no access to Canadian consular officials, it obviously doesn’t appear to be in any way a legitimate judicial process.”
Both Kovrig and Spavor were arrested in China in 2018 shortly after authorities detained Meng in British Columbia. Canada and its allies have since repeatedly called on China to release the men, while the federal government sought help directly from the U.S.
Trudeau previously said that the U.S. takes the cases of both Kovrig and Spavor seriously from conversations he’s had with U.S. President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Last month, Biden pledged to work with Canada until both men were returned.
The espionage charges both Canadians face is a crime punishable in China by life in prison, and carries a minimum sentence of 10 years.
According to McCuaig-Johnston, China would most likely hold their release of the verdict to see what they can get from the U.S. — their number one priority being that of Meng’s release.
There could be “some hope” if the U.S. insists that it wants to reset its relationship with China, she said and, “the best way to show that would be to release Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.”
— With files from Reuters and Global News’ Hannah Jackson, Emerald Bensadoun, Rachel Gilmore and Sean Boynton.