Why China ratchets up pressure on Canada as it scolds US over Huawei executive’s arrest

  • While the Chinese government and state media are stepping up the pressure on Ottawa, Beijing’s warning to the US side is more restrained
  • Analysts suggest it would not be helpful for Beijing to link Sabrina Meng Wanzhou’s case to the ongoing trade talks with Washington
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2018, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 8:48pm

China decided to pick a fight with Canada over the arrest of a senior Huawei executive because it wants to avoid further confrontation with the United States as talks to resolve the trade war continue, analysts have said.

Beijing has ratcheted up its pressure on Canada to release Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei and the daughter of the Chinese telecom equipment giant’s founder Ren Zhengfei.

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On Saturday night, China’s foreign vice-minister Le Yucheng summoned Canada’s ambassador John McCallum to lodge a “strong protest” and officially demand the immediate release of Meng.

China’s official media – including the Xinhua news agency and party mouthpiece People’s Daily – as well as the state-backed tabloid Global Times, joined a chorus condemning Canada’s arrest of Meng and threatened “grave consequences” if she is not freed.

China summoned the US ambassador on Sunday night and lodged “a strong protest” over the case. China’s foreign ministry requested the US to withdraw an arrest warrant for Meng, but it fell short of threatening “grave consequences” as it did to Canada. Instead, Le told Terry Branstad that “China will make further response according to the US acts”, according to a foreign ministry statement.

A district court in New York requested that the Canadian authorities arrest and extradite Meng, who is accused of covering up her company’s links to a firm that supplied equipment to Iran in breach of US sanctions.

She was arrested on December 1 – the day of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping’s meeting in Argentina.

Wang Yiwei, a professor of international relations at the Renmin University of China, said the case had been brought forward by a faction in Washington that wanted to undermine the ongoing trade talks between China and the US.

Wang argued it would be unwise for China to let the case undo Trump and Xi’s agreement to call a trade truce for 90 days to give them time to try to reach a deal.

“We must be fully aware of the big picture and know our top priority,” Wang said. “The trade negotiations agreed between the top leaders should not be interrupted.”

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China’s foreign ministry and commerce ministry have not yet drawn a link between Meng’s arrest and the China-US trade talks.

In contrast to the warnings and threats directed at Canada, Beijing has struck a positive and hopeful note about the trade talks.

Chen Fengying, a senior researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said there was no need to link Meng’s case to the trade talks, because it was “better addressed through diplomatic channels”.

Beijing should not “make economic issues complicated”, he said, arguing that if it was added to the agenda in the trade talks the issue could become another source of pressure to force Beijing into making concessions.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said on Sunday that US-China negotiations should not be impacted by the controversial arrest.

“This is a criminal justice matter. It is totally separate from anything I work on or anything that trade policy people in the administration work on,” Lighthizer said on CBS’ Face the Nation.

Meanwhile, Beijing is keeping up the pressure on Canada.

A Global Times editorial published on Sunday said: “It does not serve Canada’s national interest if it intends to fawn over the US by treating Ms Meng unjustly. If Meng is refused bail and extradited to the US, Canada will get minimal gratitude from the US, but maximum opposition from China.

“Chinese people will take the issue seriously, and will ask the Chinese government to impose severe sanctions on Canada. Canadian public interest will definitely be impaired if Sino-Canadian relations are put at a risk of major retrogression.”

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A Canadian court is currently holding a bail hearing, which will resume on Monday, and the editorial said the court should first grant her bail and eventually set her “totally free”.

Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has argued that Beijing’s efforts to force Ottawa to cave in may not work.

“Perhaps because the Chinese state controls its judicial system, Beijing sometimes has difficulty understanding or believing that courts can be independent in a rule-of-law country,” he wrote in a tweet. “There’s no point in pressuring the Canadian government. Judges will decide.”

Shi Yinhong, director of Renmin University’s Centre for American Studies and an adviser to the State Council – China’s cabinet – said there was a low probability that Canada would bow to pressure from Beijing and set Meng free.

“If China takes revenge against Canada, there will be some complaints in the Western world about why China did not take action against the originator, the US.”

Henry Chan Hing Lee, an adjunct fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, said that while US conservative groups would use the Huawei case and national security as a reason to push for a tougher stance towards Beijing, nationalist elements within China were exerting similar pressure to stop a deal.

“The authorities should be very careful in handling this extremely complicated situation. It would be more troublesome if its stand-off with Washington lasts,” he said.

Additional reporting by Keegan Elmer