WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the arrest of two Canadians in China and called on Beijing to release them after a high stakes meeting Friday with his Canadian counterpart.
China detained two Canadians this week in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a top Chinese tech executive in Canada on behalf of the United States. The arrests escalated a dispute with China that threatens to further complicate ties between the North American neighbors.
“The unlawful detention of two Canadian citizens is unacceptable. They ought to be returned,’ Pompeo said.
Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met their Canadian counterparts for discussions that were dominated by Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of telecommunications giant Huawei.
Meng was picked up Dec. 1 at the request of the United States, which wants her extradited to face charges that she and her company misled banks about the company’s business dealings in Iran.
The case has set off a three-way diplomatic furor in which Canada is stuck in the middle. The dispute threatens to complicate ties between the U.S. and Canada, which were already testy.
A Canadian judge released Meng on bail Tuesday, causing some consternation in Washington. President Donald Trump said he might intervene in the case if it would help clinch a trade agreement with China.
Trump has previously attacked Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over trade, and his suggestion that he could intervene contradicted Canadian officials who said the arrest was not political.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland took a swipe at Trump again on Friday, saying extradition proceedings should not be used as political tools to resolve other issues.
Canada’s tourism minister on Friday postponed a planned trip to China because of the tensions. Also Friday, Canada’s Global Affairs department said it had just received consular access to Michael Kovrig, one of the Canadians detained in China. They continue to press for access to Michael Spavor. Both were arrested Monday.
In years past, the U.S. would have been counted on to defend Canada when came it under attack and other countries would know the U.S. had Canada’s back. That is no longer a certainty.
In August, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada’s foreign ministry tweeted support for an arrested Saudi activist. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and ordered their citizens studying in Canada to leave.
No country, including the U.S., spoke out publicly in support of Canada, and the Trump administration has been steadfast in its support for Saudi Arabia. American support for the kingdom has come under intense scrutiny after U.S. intelligence officials concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman must have at least known of the plot to kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Turkey.
Now the stakes are much higher. Canada is one of the few countries in the world unabashedly speaking out in defense of human rights and the international rule of law. And Canada is looking to Chinese trade as increasingly important because of Trump’s trade threats.