The United States and Canada are countries in which there is a clear-cut division of power between the three branches of government – the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary.
They are countries in which the judicial system operates independently from any political interference and where all court cases, including ones with international dimensions, are dealt with in strict compliance with laws and conventions.
Or so legend has it. In fact, the recent incarceration and the subsequent bail hearing of Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, makes it seem that politics does play a role in the two countries’ judicial affairs, coming as it does amid a spiralling trade war and escalating tensions between the United States and China.
Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei and the heir apparent of the Chinese telecoms giant, was arrested by Canadian authorities at the request of the American government on suspicion of fraud related to Washington’s sanctions on Iran.
Beijing, for certain, sees Meng’s arrest as politically inspired. It has responded with tough political and diplomatic actions, unsurprisingly given Huawei is seen as the pride of China and a symbol of the country’s rise.
China immediately summoned the Canadian and American ambassadors to lodge protests and demanded the release of the Chinese businesswoman.
And in the past two weeks it has detained three Canadians, making no secret of the fact these arrests were acts of retaliation.
“Those who accuse China of detaining some person in retaliation for the arrest of Ms Meng should first reflect on the actions of the Canadian side,” Lu Shaye, Chinese ambassador to Canada, wrote in an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump’s statement that he was willing to intervene in the case if it helped achieve “the largest trade deal ever made” only further convinced most people that “hostage diplomacy” was in play.
Indeed, whatever the result of Meng’s case, Beijing has ample reason to believe the US action against her is one of Trump’s tactics to force Chinese concessions in trade talks and undermine China’s ability to compete with the US in the field of technology.
Since this year, intelligence officers from the Five Eyes partnership – comprising the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand – have been investigating the security implications of Chinese involvement in the countries’ domestic 5G technology and networks.
There has been a series of public statements by intelligence chiefs from these countries and a coordinated effort to block Huawei and ZTE from gaining a foothold in these domestic markets. Huawei and ZTE are global leaders in 5G technology.
Thus, it has become apparent that the US is leading a global alliance to stop the Chinese tech giants from supplying equipment for their next-generation wireless networks, citing security grounds.
And this is why China sees in Meng’s arrest a US conspiracy – as described by Ambassador Lu, a “political action in which the United States wields its regime power to witch-hunt a Chinese hi-tech company out of political consideration”.
In August, the Trump administration signed a bill banning government use of Huawei and ZTE technology as part of its broader Defence Authorisation Act.
The Five Eyes network is reaching out to other US allies, including Japan, Germany and France, and it is to be expected that more countries will join the US-led alliance against Huawei and ZTE.
This all goes to show how the escalating competition between the US and China on technology and economic matters will have all sorts of unintended consequences for global diplomacy.
As Washington and Beijing do their best to convince their allies across the world to use their respective 5G technology, countries will be forced to take sides. Canada is just one of the first to do so.
Asian countries, such as India, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam – all of which have strong security ties to the US and strong economic ones to China – will be forced to make uncomfortable choices.
This is just the latest example of how economic competition between the world’s two biggest economies is escalating into a greater rivalry in the strategic and security arenas.
It may seem that Meng’s case is just part of the US-China competition for technological supremacy. But it is also part of something deeper: an intensifying rivalry between two spheres of influence that stretches across the world, the likes of which has not been seen since the height of the cold war.
Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s