Saturday, September 25, 2021

China enters a new phase where optics are no longer important

The release of Canada's two Michaels at the exact time that Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was released from her house arrest and flew home to China - the two flights probably passed each other somewhere over Northern Europe - gives the official lie to all the outraged Chinese claims that there was no link between Ms. Meng's arrest and the incarceration of the two Canadian civilians.

No-one outside of China seriously doubted that the detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig was anything other than an arbitrary and spurious tit-for-tat action that is best characterized as "hostage diplomacy". But China has been at pains to insist that this was not the case, in a vain attempt to have it appear slightly less egregious in the eyes of the world. 

Most commentators - including me, I have to say - were predicting that, once Ms. Meng was released, through the intercession of American lawyers and diplomats (and almost certainly Joe Biden himself), the two Michaels would NOT be released immediately, because that would too obviously link the two events, which would be bad optics for China.

Yesterday's bland admission that, yes, the detentions were indeed targeted hostage diplomacy after all, heralds a new phase in China's relations with the rest of the world, one in which optics really don't matter to them. Long used to splendid isolation (other than what bought support they can glean from their aggressive investment and development projects in South America and Africa), China is clearly signalling that it now believes itself strong enough not to need to observe the diplomatic niceties followed by most of the rest of the world. 

China now believes it can do pretty much whatever it likes with complete impunity, because no other country dare cross it due to its economic and military power. It is up to the rest of the world, or at least those who are not completely economically beholden to China, to show that this is not the case. Canada, as a middle power at best, should take solace from the fact that it has a whole network of supportive allies in North America, Europe and parts of Asia behind it, while China is essentially, and eternally, alone.

And, of course, now that the two Michaels are out of the picture, Canada is under pressure to make its long-delayed decision on whether or not to allow Chinese company Huawei to participate in the rollout of Canada's 5G telecommunications network. Actually, Rogers, Bell and Telus, having seen the writing on the wall, are all now pursuing 5G contracts with Eriksson, Nokia and Samsung anyway, so maybe the government may not need to put their neck on the line by making an official statement (or maybe they have already been speaking to Rogers, Bell and Telus behind the scenes for that very reason).

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