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PETER McKENNA: Trump lets Canada face wrath of China alone

Bruce MacKinnon's editorial cartoon for June 21, 2019.
Bruce MacKinnon's editorial cartoon for June 21, 2019. - Bruce MacKinnon

As the Meng Wanzhou extradition hearing moves along in Vancouver, most of the focus is on how this case hurts the overall Canada-China relationship. But there is another interesting piece of this contentious and challenging puzzle — namely, the role of the United States.

It is true that Canada was tipped off about the top Huawei executive’s travels through British Columbia in December of 2018. She was subsequently arrested by the RCMP at the Vancouver airport for allegedly violating the U.S. sanctions regime against Iran. Accordingly, the U.S. Justice Department formally requested that Ms. Meng be extradited under a long-standing bilateral legal treaty.

But given our status as a close, like-minded and strategic partner to the U.S., has Washington had Canada’s back during this lengthy and painful ordeal? Since we were doing our neighbour a huge favour, has U.S. President Donald Trump championed Canada’s concerns and interests with his counterparts in Beijing? And what does this particular case say about the state of Canada-U.S. relations today?

Furthermore, could Canada, a country of laws, have simply looked the other way and allowed Ms. Meng to escape our jurisdiction? Would it not be a good idea to use Ms. Meng as a bargaining chip to secure the release of the “two Michaels” — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — who are imprisoned in China on trumped-up charges and living in difficult cell conditions? Is it not possible for Canada’s justice minister, as authorized under the Canada-U.S. extradition treaty, to order her release today?

The big problem with any of those options would have been the outraged reaction in official Washington. It would have raised serious questions about Canada’s loyalty and trustworthiness as a bilateral friend and ally. And it most assuredly would have angered The Donald, who has never missed an opportunity to aggressively go after the Chinese.

Obviously, we don’t want him to turn his venom on Canada and start talking (or tweeting) once again about slapping punishing tariffs on Canadian auto imports. At the same time, Canada needs Trump to be open to “thinning” the Canadian-American border as opposed to building a wall, adding needless regulations or sending thousands of U.S. border agents to various designated crossings.

Now, it is the case that President Trump has handled the Meng Wanzhou affair very poorly. His ill-considered comments about withdrawing the U.S. extradition request as part of his years-long trade dispute with the Chinese government were unhelpful, even reckless. He obviously put Canada in an extremely awkward position and played right into Beijing’s claims that the whole Meng arrest was little more than a “political” move by a pliant Ottawa.

In fairness, the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has offered some comforting words to Canadian authorities over the imprisoning of Kovrig and Spavor. But those words, unfortunately, have not been followed up by any concrete or meaningful actions. For example, there were no efforts to link the recent signing of a “Phase One” U.S.-China trade deal to the release of the two Canadians.

Clearly, what the Meng case tells us is that officialdom in Ottawa should not view the U.S. as a reliable and trusted partner today. Just as the killing of 57 Canadians in the downed Ukrainian airliner barely registered on the radar screen in Washington, so, too, are the “two Michaels” unlikely to ever ascend to the top of the Trump administration’s agenda.

It used to be that Ottawa could count on our friends in Washington to go to bat for us on various things. It used to be possible for Canadians to use our “in” with the U.S. to leverage concessions from other countries. But as the Meng case has highlighted, that is not the case anymore, I’m afraid.

If Canadian officials didn’t realize it before, they should now: Trump is largely a transactional president — where the transactions take place on a one-way street. The reality was that Trump, notwithstanding Justin Trudeau’s urgings, was never going to pressure the Chinese on releasing the imprisoned Canadians. Not a chance.

It’s no stretch of the imagination, then, to posit that the Trump White House has been the most difficult U.S. administration since the John F. Kennedy years in the 1960s. But unlike a prickly Kennedy, who allowed a personal animosity toward a crusty John Diefenbaker to poison the bilateral relationship, Trump doesn’t care about who the Canadian prime minister is.

In fact, he doesn’t really carry if the Canadian PM is actually naughty or nice to him. As far as Trump is concerned, he just wants to “win”— which means Canada has to lose. Welcome to America First!

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

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