Friday, September 16, 2016

Can Canada trust China or will bilateral talks end in asymmetrical agreements?

Canadian Kevin Garratt has been released from Chinese detention and allowed to return home in Vancouver. According to the CBC, Garratt was found guilty on two counts of espionage, and the judge ordered him deported.

Garratt and his wife, Julia, operated a café called Peter’s Coffee Shop in Dandong, China where they had lived since 1984. Apparently the couple also carried out Christian aid work in the area—the city of Dandong is near China’s border with North Korea.

The Canadians were detained in August 2014 and accused of stealing Chinese military secrets. We have heard two other explanations for their detention, however, that seem more believable to this writer.

Firstly, the timing of their arrests was interesting coming as it did so shortly after Canadian officials accused a “Chinese state-sponsored actor” of a “highly sophisticated” hacking attack on the computer systems at Canada’s National Research Council. Many believe the spying charges against the Garratts were a tit-for-tat response to the Canada’s allegations.

Secondly, it is said that North Korea demanded the Chinese government shut down the Garratts’ religious activities. North Korea’s anti-religion position is well known and while the couple apparently did not spread Bibles or actively proselytize in that country, North Koreans reportedly attended training secessions in Dandong and returned to North Korea to preach the gospel.

Unfortunately for the Garratts, when the national interests of those two communists regimes intersected, they paid the price with their freedom.

Julia Garratt returned to Canada in February 2015 after being released on bail. Then, in early 2016, Chinese authorities said they had found evidence that Garratt had accepted assignments from Canadian espionage agencies to gather intelligence in China, accusations denied by the couple and by the Canadian government. According to CBC News, CSIS Director Michel Coulombe even travelled to China and told officials there that Garratt did not work for his spy agency.

Both former prime minister Stephen Harper and Prime Minister Trudeau have raised the Garratts’ case during visits to China in late 2014 and recently in 2016. And, of course, Julia Garratt’s release occurred during Harper’s term in office. The political advantage will, however, go overwhelmingly to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, under whose watch this case has been concluded with the best possible outcome: both Garratts at home in Canada safe and sound.

While we can only speculate that political calculation alone got Kevin Garratt tossed into a Chinese jail for two years, we can be very sure political calculation alone has set him free.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will be in Canada next week for an official visit, and is scheduled to meet with Trudeau in Ottawa, apparently, “to continue to deepen a strong, more stable relationship between Canada and China.”

The the two leaders are expected to discuss a wide range of common interests, including trade, investment rules surrounding state-owned enterprises and environmental, legal and cultural issues. Releasing Kevin Garratt just before Li’s visit was a nice gesture calculated to kick off the meetings on a positive note.

While I certainly join the widely held belief this is a good news story that could have had a far more sinister ending, I can’t help seeing this as further proof of how “flexible” the law is in China. Due process and the rule of law, it seems, means little to those who rule the country. The law, such as it is, seems to be there only to serve the interests of the Communist Party of China.

If for selfish political reasons an innocent man needs to be arrested and imprisoned, so be it. Should political calculation later dictate the man be freed, that too can be made to happen. Fortunately, this time it worked in our favour, but how about next time?

Can we put any trust in China?

Ask the people of Tibet that question. Ask any of the countries with which China shares the hotly disputed South China Sea.

China is one of only five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Under the UN Charter, all member states are obligated to comply with Council decisions. Even from this important leadership position, China will not acknowledge one of the UN’s arbitral tribunals nor abide by its ruling. The tribunal constituted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled against China’s maritime claims in its South China Sea dispute with the Philippines—China is ignoring the ruling.

China likes one-on-one negotiations since, because of its size and rapidly expanding military power and reach, such negotiations will almost always be asymmetrical, and it can bully its way to a win-win position. 

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