Stumbles over Meng Wanzhou’s arrest won’t help the US case against Huawei

(Originally published here by South China Morning Post.)

As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced an onslaught of political attacks last week over accusations of back-room dealing, Beijing piled on the pressure.

When a member of China’s state-owned press questioned Canada’s judicial independence in light of accusations that Trudeau tried to interfere with a judicial inquiry into the misdeeds of SNC Lavalin – a company based in the prime minister’s hometown of Montreal – China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang played it up.

”It is not only the Chinese and Canadian people, but also people all around the world, that are very interested to see what the Canadian government is going to say about this,” Lu said.

The exchange was meant to point out that Trudeau allegedly tried to do for SNC what he claimed to have no power to do for Huawei’s chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou: stick his nose into his Justice Department’s affairs.

An inconsistency? Perhaps. Unfair? At first glance, yes. But the more important point is that the department continued with its inquiry into accusations that SNC bribed the Libyan government.

If Trudeau’s predicament proves anything, it’s that Canada’s Justice Department appears impervious to interference stemming from domestic political considerations, like jobs in Quebec, or geostrategic ones, like Beijing’s ability to retaliate against Ottawa.

Any angst that progressive-minded Canadians are feeling over the possibility that Trudeau was never the antiseptic source of sunlight that he portrayed himself to be should take comfort in knowing that their halls of justice are well lit.

If Trudeau did try to kill the SNC investigation and failed, he would have known that any interference in the US extradition request for Meng would have also been rebuffed, probably with worse consequences than what he’s facing now.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump’s inability to derail his own Justice Department’s special inquiry into his campaign’s ties to Russia’s efforts to influence the outcome of the election that brought him into the White House suggests that justice in America is alive and well.

Frustrating as it might be for Beijing, it’s difficult to accuse either the US or Canadian federal justice systems of playing geopolitical games.

Unfortunately, none of this changes the fact that Meng is likely to remain detained in Vancouver for a lengthy period before her extradition to the US, which will guide Beijing’s tactical diplomacy and cause heartburn for diplomats in three countries.

Which is why – although Washington and Ottawa can claim that their justice chiefs are not in on an illegitimate effort to undercut China’s ambitions in the global telecommunications industry – they would be better off prosecuting this case without the image of a hard-working mother of four, who helped make Huawei a globally recognised brand, stuck in Vancouver with an ankle monitor.

As long as Meng remains detained, Washington and Ottawa will be fighting an uphill public relations battle. In the bombastic carnival of misinformation channelled through dozens if not thousands of media platforms, social and otherwise, the US and Canada can be characterised as ruthless in their efforts to contain China.

In this messy milieu, it’s easy to bury some key evidence to be used in the case – such as a seemingly incriminating PowerPoint presentation Meng gave to HSBC, and her multiple passports – and bring in any number of examples of US or Canadian corporate misdeeds. SNC Lavalin’s activities in Libya, for example.

Knowing that the US government has an interest in presenting its evidence against Meng and Huawei publicly, the Justice Department should have simply issued a warrant for her arrest and delivered it to her office.

Instead, Canadian police detained and questioned her at the airport. In facing charges in the US, Meng would have all of the legal protections afforded any defendants in the US and the ability to hire the best defence team money can buy.

Would that have enticed her? Probably not. But ignoring the arrest warrant would give the Justice Department an opportunity to make its case and further limit Meng’s ability to travel internationally.

This course would also pave the way more easily for punitive action by the US government against Huawei.

And Beijing’s propaganda machine wouldn’t have Meng as a symbol of Canadian and American aggression.

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