They were in the air at the exact same time.
That’s what Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a distinguished fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and longtime China liaison for the Canadian government, couldn’t stop thinking about Saturday morning when Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor landed in Canada after more than 1,000 days imprisoned in China.
The greatest surprise for former diplomats and China observers across the country who spoke with the Star Saturday was that the Michaels boarded a plane to return to Canada in near-perfect concert with Meng Wanzhou’s plane trip home to China.
“The fact that they left immediately in parallel with Meng just underscores the fact that their cases were intimately tied with Meng’s,” she said. “It’s proof of hostage diplomacy, and we shouldn’t feel very good about that.”
Multiple experts on China’s relations with China told the Star they were struck that, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Kovrig and Spavor were on the way home to Canada Friday night, the exchange of Meng Wanzhou for the two Canadians resembled a Cold War era hostage swap between the U.S. and Russia.
And it was surprising because China has insisted since it first detained Kovrig and Spavor that their cases are unrelated to that of Meng. That the Canadian Air Force plane transporting the Michaels all but crossed Meng’s in the air belied that statement for good.
“That’s what I take away from this. From the first, (the Chinese officials) were talking out of both sides of their mouth,” said Clive Ansley, a consultant and former professor of Chinese history and law. “What they really want to do is leave the message that you know what’s going to happen if you mess around with us.”
Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat with expertise in both Asia and the U.S., said he was surprised and thrilled that the Michaels returned home on the very same day that Meng was able to return to China.
“This would all have been carefully choreographed and set up ahead of time. What’s impressive is it was kept close to the vest for all three parties,” he said.
Robertson saw the events of Friday — from Meng’s virtual appearance in a Brooklyn courtroom, to a Vancouver hearing to have her extradition request withdrawn, to Trudeau’s announcement that Kovrig and Spavor were coming home — as the result of painstaking negotiations between the U.S. and China, with Canada staying strong to both the rule of law, and its demand for the Michaels to be freed.
“This is geopolitics at the highest level,” he said. “And we were pawns — but I think we used our relative position as a pawn to make something happen for Canada.”
The U.S. Justice Department and lawyers for Meng began talking about the possibility of a deferred prosecution agreement that would free Meng last December under the Trump administration, according to reports first published by the Wall Street Journal. Those talks reportedly resumed this month, with Canadian representatives making sure the release of the Michaels was on the table every step of the way.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said securing the release of the two Canadian men was a priority, and Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau said that Biden was treating the Michaels as though they were America citizens in talks with China.
McCuaig-Johnston said Canadian ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, has been a key figure in making sure the Michaels stayed on the Americans’ radar.
“A number of months ago, at the time of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor’s trials, Dominic Barton was in Ottawa, and then Washington and New York, meeting with everybody under the sun trying to find a way through.”
At the end of the day, Robertson said, the negotiation that will have mattered the most for Kovrig and Spavor was that between the U.S. and China — in which the U.S. “stood up for their closest ally,” to ensure not a moment was wasted in getting the Michaels home.
Each side, he said, had to give a little bit. The Americans agreed to have Meng Wanzhou enter a plea of “not guilty” to the charges of fraud against her. China, and Meng, agreed to have Meng take responsibility for a four-page statement of facts asserting she said misleading things about Huawei’s dealings with Iran. This could help the Justice Department prosecute Huawei, while allowing Meng to go home.
“My sense is that about one week and a half ago, when Biden and Xi Jinping had their conversation, I think this is probably one of the items raised in that conversation,” Robertson said. “So I think the Americans took this on board, and I think they’re determined to show to the alliance that they’re a reliable ally.”
It could be one step of a slow process, he said, of countries from all over the world coming together to develop a new way to stand up to China.
Trudeau did not immediately respond to questions about what the return of the Michaels means for Canada-China relations Friday night.