The "best thing" US President Donald Trump can do to secure the release of Canadians arrested in China is Washington's assignment to hand over Huawei manager Meng Wanzhou, as Canada's former ambassador said today in China.
John McCallum, released in January from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's high-level diplomatic mission after being involved in Meng's extradition proceedings before Chinese-language journalists, told CBC News in Beijing that the PM has opportunities to repair Canada's diplomatic relations with China limited as he prepares for the G20 summit this weekend in Osaka.
"I do not think there is a simple, immediate solution," McCallum said, adding that Trudeau's best hope for the release of Canadian Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from Chinese custody may be with mercurial President Trump.
"I certainly hope (Trump) can help, and from the standpoint of restoring ties and releasing our hostages, Trump would say he does not want to extradite Meng Wanzhou," McCallum said.
"Now I doubt he'll say that, he could ask Xi to release our hostages, I do not know what Mr. Trump will do, it's difficult to predict."
President Trump is expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit to find a solution to the emerging trade war between the two countries. He can also address the topic of the two Canadian detainees; During a meeting with Trudeau in the White House last week, Trump said he would do "anything" to support her release.
Another former Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney, told CBC News that he was surprised to hear that McCallum was still addressing this issue given the circumstances of leaving the job.
"My own point is, if I went through what he went through … I would refrain from making public comments," Mulroney said, adding that McCallum's speculation about Meng's extradition weakened Canada's bargaining position.
"The unfortunate reality is that while older people make comments like these, the Chinese are convinced that Canadians will crack them."
Canada's diplomatic relations with China are on hold since Meng, the 47-year-old chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, was arrested in December 2018 at a stopover from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires at Vancouver International Airport.
According to an unsealed indictment in January, Meng and Huawei are subject to 13 US-related offenses related to conspiracy, fraud and disability.
Since Meng's arrest, Beijing has exerted strong pressure on Canadian exporters and blocked supplies of rape seed and pork. It also arrested Spavor and Kovrig and accused them of espionage.
The Trudeau government's efforts to engage in dialogue with Beijing over the detainees have come to a standstill. Earlier this month, CBC News reported that Beijing had rejected Trudeau's personal request to speak to Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang about the detainees.
Trudeau applied to Li for a lawsuit against Robert Schellenberg, a Canadian man accused of drug smuggling in China. China ignored the request and eventually turned it down. A Chinese court then sentenced Schellenberg to death in a sudden re-trial.
"The Chinese leadership did not want to talk to us, and ideally it would be better for our people to talk to their people," McCallum said.
This week, Meng's attorneys issued a statement that it was "Canada's national interest" to stop extradition.
"That's what China wants, and China made that very clear," said McCallum. "I do not suggest that Mr. Trump does that, but if he does, that would certainly be of great help."
This is not the first time that McCallum has publicly speculated that Washington is withdrawing its extradition lawsuit. Just before Trudeau requested his resignation in January, McCallum was quoted as saying to a gathering of Chinese-language journalists in Toronto that he thought Meng had a strong case to fight extradition to the US and made several arguments he thought was helpful.
Days later, McCallum said he misspelled these statements. A day later, he told a StarMetro reporter in Vancouver that it was "great for Canada" if the US dropped its extradition request.
McCallum, in his new position, is a Senior Strategic Advisor to Toronto-based law firm McMillan LLP in Beijing, advising Canadian and Chinese business leaders on tackling the tense relationship between the two countries.
"There is a big concern," he said. "The state of relations between Canada and China is at a low point and my goal is to talk to companies about how they are doing, how to help them, or how to advise them under the circumstances."
McCallum said he spoke with his former colleagues at the Canadian Embassy on Monday to receive an update on Spavor and Kovrig. He said the embassy staff continue to visit the two men more than once a month.
"I was told that they perform as well as you might expect, but obviously they want a quick fix and they want to be released," he said.
McCallum said he does not think "it's the end of the world" that Canada has not yet filled its old job, adding that the current Beijing Mission Chief Jim Nickel is helping to close the gap.
"Whether we have an ambassador on the ground or not will not be the deciding factor."