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Beijing shoves Canada’s China problem into the path of Trudeau’s reelection

Another Chinese court ruling for a third Canadian, Michael Kovrig, is likely close behind — and it could land in the middle of Trudeau’s reelection bid, which he launched Sunday.

Trudeau’s main rivals are already talking about what they would do about Canada’s clash with China.

The opposition Conservatives are accusing the prime minister of being too soft on Beijing. The New Democrats say Canada must do more to rescue its citizens.

Campaign-trail rhetoric aside, Canada appears to have few options and little leverage in the cases of Spavor, Kovrig and Schellenberg.

The 2018 arrests behind last week’s ruling

The cases are widely seen as connected to senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s fight in a Canadian court against a U.S. extradition request.

Chinese authorities rounded up Kovrig and Spavor on spying charges in December 2018, nine days after Canadian police arrested Meng in Vancouver on the American warrant related to fraud allegations against her in the U.S.

Meng’s arrest angered Beijing and the legal ordeals of the Canadians are seen by many as retaliation for her arrest.

Close observers suggest it’s no coincidence the Canadians’ Chinese courtroom developments picked up as Meng’s extradition hearings started to wind down in Vancouver.

Spavor intends to appeal his 11-year sentence. The court date for Kovrig’s verdict has yet to be set, Canadian officials say.

A few weeks after Meng’s arrest, a Chinese court changed Schellenberg’s initial sentence of 15 years for drug trafficking to a death sentence. Last Tuesday, Schellenberg lost his death penalty appeal and his case will move to a higher court.

Trudeau condemned the Spavor decision as “absolutely unacceptable and unjust.” The trial, he added, “did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law.”

The line Canada won’t cross

Solutions to the problem appear to be limited for middle-power Canada, which boasts about its adherence to the rule of law and respect for the independent judiciary.

Trudeau’s Liberals and the Conservatives, their main foes, have pledged to honor Canada’s extradition treaty with the U.S.

The detained Canadians are unlikely to see any change in their legal situations unless Meng is freed — a step Trudeau has firmly refused to take.

When asked whether releasing Meng to free the two Michaels was an option, Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong told POLITICO that his party, much like the Trudeau government, won’t bend on Canada’s commitment to the rule of law.

“We have to allow the judicial proceeding taking place in Vancouver to play itself out,” Chong said of the Meng case. “Interfering in that judicial proceeding is not an option.”

Playing politics with policy

The Conservatives have long tried to make gains on Trudeau’s China policy by accusing him of shrinking away from Beijing.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has framed Trudeau’s approach to China as a “failure of leadership.” He has urged him to “finally grow a spine” and ban Huawei 5G gear from Canadian networks. He insists the prime minister lacks a plan to free Kovrig and Spavor.

Following Spavor’s sentencing last week, O’Toole told reporters that Trudeau “has been offside with respect to China” during his six years in power. O’Toole also called on Canada to boycott February’s Beijing Olympics.

“We have to stand up to China’s threats and belligerence,” Chong said. “By standing up to these threats, we make it clear to China that this form of hostage diplomacy is not going to work. The government was too late in waking up to that reality.”

Indeed, Trudeau has avoided open confrontation with Beijing in a delicate effort to free Spavor and Kovrig.

In dealing with Beijing,…

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