Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau says the Canadian government is under no illusions when approaching a normalization of relations with China, a day after two men detained by that country for three years finally returned home.
“There was no path to a relationship with China as long as the two Michaels were being detained,” Garneau said Sunday in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live, referring to Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Kovrig, a diplomat, and Spavor, an entrepreneur who worked in North Korea and China, were detained separately and charged with espionage soon after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada in December 2018.
The series of events has chilled Canada-China relations. Garneau told host Rosemary Barton that when it comes to normalizing relations Canada’s “eyes are wide open” and the government is now following a four-fold approach to China: “coexist,” “compete,” “co-operate,” and “challenge.”
Denunciations of China over the arbitrary detention of Kovrig and Spavor are one example of challenging the rising superpower, Garneau said.
Return of Kovrig, Spavor a ‘memorable moment’: Garneau
Garneau was in Calgary on Saturday to welcome the so-called “two Michaels” as they landed in Canada, almost three years after they were first detained in China.
“To see them actually land and to get off the airplane and touch down on Canadian soil was very emotional,” he said.
“I think you could sense a collective sigh of relief from Canada, and joy at seeing our two Michaels finally back on Canadian soil.”
A digital media outlet overseen by the Chinese Communist Party reported Monday that Spavor and Kovrig were released with conditions because of “illness.”
“Well, I saw the two Michaels yesterday. They’re in fine form,” Garneau said. Other state-controlled media pieces from China praised the efforts of Chinese diplomats in the return of Meng Wanzhou and spoke positively about a possible restart of Canada-China relations.
From the perspective of the Canadian public, the events that led to the eventual return of Kovrig and Spavor unfolded quickly. Meng Wanzhou appeared virtually in a New York court Friday and it was announced that she had reached a deferred prosecution agreement relating to fraud charges laid against her by U.S. authorities.
She was then in a Vancouver courtroom, where her extradition case was dropped. She went directly to the airport and boarded a flight for China.
Soon after, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Spavor and Kovrig were on a flight to Canada. The two men landed Saturday morning.
“I think Canadians were very surprised. We’ve been working this in the background for a very long time,” Garneau said. He told Barton he had heard about the deferred prosecution agreement several weeks ago and said that “really was what opened the door to the return of the two Michaels.”
It was certainly a surprise for Jacco Zwetsloot, a friend of Spavor’s. Zwetsloot said once he heard about the Wanzhou deal, he anticipated it might take six months for Spavor to be released. Then, he heard about Trudeau’s Friday announcement.
“At that stage, everything just went wild. It was crazy,” he said.
Watch | Friends of Michael Spavor, Michael Kovrig on their return to Canada
Zwetsloot met Spavor in Seoul, South Korea, and bonded over a mutual interest in North Korea. Spavor is an entrepreneur who has worked on organizing travel to North Korea.
Zwetsloot said he and friends missed Spavor and couldn’t wait to see him again: “I have a bottle of North Korean snake liquor ready for when you come back to Seoul to see us again.”
‘Very clear’ link between cases: Garneau
China has denied that there was any link between the cases of Meng Wanzhou and Kovrig and Spavor.
But the timing of the releases was noteworthy, he said. “It’s very clear … that the immediate return of the two Michaels linked that to the Meng Wanzhou case in a very direct manner,” Garneau said.
The foreign affairs minister also said he didn’t think the timing of the two men’s return had anything to do with the timing of the federal election Monday: “I think it just worked out that way.”
He also did not rule out the possibility of providing compensation to the two men.
“We’re very sensitive to the fact that they’ve gone through an extraordinary ordeal in the past 1,019 days and that if there is any need for us to be there to support them, we will be there to support.”
Garneau said the detention of the two Michaels had harmed China’s image internationally, as shown by growing support for an international declaration against arbitrary detention.
“It’s fine for countries to have disagreements, but you cannot resort to arbitrarily putting citizens of another country in jail because you’re not happy with that country.”
Other Canadians still detained in China
Joanna Chiu, a national correspondent for the Toronto Star and a friend of Kovrig’s, said she was relieved to see him return but noted that many people were worried that “not much has actually changed.”
“We worry that if you’re still a Canadian living in China today, what happened might not actually make you feel safer, or that this won’t happen again,” Chiu said.
She also noted that Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were not the only Canadians detained in China, including Huseyin Celil, a Uighur activist detained since 2006.
Canadians Robert Schellenberg, Xu Weihong, Ye Jianhui and Fan Wei have all been sentenced to death because of drug offence convictions in China over the past several years.