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Trudeau denies political involvement in Huawei executive’s arrest, as Canada waits to see if China will retaliate

Trudeau denies political involvement in Huawei executive’s arrest, as Canada waits to see if China will retaliate
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OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is denying any political involvement in the arrest of a top Chinese tech executive at the Vancouver airport last weekend, while experts warn the move could put a chill on Canada-China relations.

Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei and the daughter of its founder, on Saturday as she was changing planes. She is to appear in a Vancouver court on Friday for a bail hearing. She is facing extradition to the United States on U.S. suspicions that Huawei violated sanctions against Iran by providing that country with telecommunications equipment. Details about the arrest are under a publication ban at Meng’s request.

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou Huawei via AP

Trudeau denied that there was any political impetus to the decision to detain Meng. “The appropriate authorities took the decisions in this case. We were advised by them with a few days’ notice that this was in the works but of course there was no engagement or involvement in the political level in this decision because we respect the independence of our judicial processes,” he said Thursday.

Nonetheless, Canada could face political or economic retaliation. A private meeting between Canadian MPs and Chinese officials Thursday was cancelled, raising the question of whether China wanted to halt high-level talks altogether. The Chinese embassy confirmed to the National Post that it was rescheduled “due to visa issues,” however, and the delegation was still set to arrive late Thursday.

Aside from demanding Meng’s release — with the Chinese embassy saying Thursday it “firmly opposes and strongly protests over such kind of actions which seriously harmed the human rights of the victim” — China appears to be in a holding pattern, with experts suggesting that it is unlikely the country will retaliate immediately. For their part, organizations such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce are reporting no immediate sense of panic from Canadian businesses that operate in China.

Once an extradition process has started, it’s a matter for the courts and political actors can’t just call up a judge to demand Meng’s release, said Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. “I don’t see the basis on which this could be quashed by Canada,” he said. “Once the arrest has been made, the extradition request filed, it’s not an easy thing even for the (U.S.) president to cancel a judicial action.”

Although China is likely to “understand” that Canada is under pressure from the U.S., the Chinese will have “special concerns that the arrest took place on Canadian soil,” said Paul Evans, at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research. “I imagine that some Chinese are going to see this as the equivalent of a hostage-taking,” he said. “I hope very much that this will not escalate into the equivalent of what happens sometimes when spies are arrested in one country and the other country retaliates.”

Houlden said he thinks the U.S. is more likely to be a target. “I think because of the super-delicate phase that we’re at in terms of U.S.-China trade relations that China is more likely to wait for this process to move a little bit further in the legal proceedings rather than retaliate immediately,” he said, but it wouldn’t surprise him if an American executive gets arrested. For Canadian businesses, barring any tit-for-tat arrests it may be difficult to track ramifications. “It’s like the dog that didn’t bark, if a business person decides not to make an investment, or existing company decides not to expand their investment (in Canada),” he said.

At the G20 summit in Argentina last weekend, U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a 90-day ceasefire in what had until then been an escalating trade war, putting on hold Trump’s plans to further increase tariffs on Chinese goods. Despite Meng’s arrest the same day that deal was announced, Beijing officials were standing by the agreement on Thursday.

I imagine that some Chinese are going to see this as the equivalent of a hostage-taking

Evans argued the arrest is just one small part of a broader, longer-term geopolitical story playing out between the U.S. and China, and it is concerning for Canada to be caught in the middle. “I think there’s a lot of things we don’t know about this yet but this is not small potatoes. This is a significant symbolic and material action at a time of growing U.S.-China tension around geopolitics and techno-nationalism,” he said of Meng’s arrest.

Canada has not joined the U.S., Australia and New Zealand in banning Huawei’s technology from being used in 5G wireless networks because of cybersecurity fears. Huawei has rejected claims that it could use the infrastructure to spy on behalf of the Chinese government, and denies reports that it has violated sanctions regimes.

“The company has been provided very little information regarding the charges and is not aware of any wrongdoing by Ms. Meng. The company believes the Canadian and U.S. legal systems will ultimately reach a just conclusion,” said a statement from Huawei. “Huawei complies with all applicable laws and regulations where it operates, including applicable export control and sanction laws and regulations of the UN, U.S. and EU.”

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