Playing Lionel Messi with diplomacy

Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, top left; Canadian leader, Trudeau, right and Spavor

By Owei Lakemfa

LIONEL Messi, diagnosed at 11 with a growth hormone disorder, GHD, which stunted his growth, fought against all odds to become one of the best footballers who has ever set foot on the earth. His quick dribbles, uncanny ability to sell dummies, building himself into a goal-scoring machine and playing sweet, seemingly effortless football, is the stuff of good diplomacy.

There are endless debates whether he is the best player alive; or is Christiano Ronaldo better? The same type of debates when I was young about Edson Arantes do Nascimento, famously known as Pele and the Mozambican-born Portuguese player, Eusebio da Silva Ferrera.

Like Messi and Ronaldo, America and China are playing some good football on the international scene. They are converting their economic, trade, political and military rivalries into diplomatic dribbles which are confusing countries like Canada led by a naïve government that cannot read a simple game.

This Wednesday August 11, 2011 when PSG unveiled Messi and his Number 30 shirt, China scored a diplomatic goal against Canada by sentencing Canadian businessman, Michael Spavor to 11 years imprisonment for spying. The Dandong Intermediate People’s Court in North-East China found Spavor guilty of “espionage and illegally providing state secrets” to foreigners.

A day earlier, the Liaoning High People’s Court in China had upheld the death sentence of another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg for planning to send 225kg of methaphetamine to Australia. Schellenberg was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison in November 2018 and when he appealed, it was raised to the death sentence. A third Canadian, Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat may be sentenced within the next few weeks.

This diplomatic game which Canada terms “hostage diplomacy” is like a Division Three club in North America playing Barcelona, Bayern Munich, PSG or Manchester United and complaining of being outplayed.

The spat between Canada and China is due to the former unwisely dabbling in the diplomatic games between the latter and the United States on two issues. The first is an allegation by America that China’s giant telecommunication company, Huawei, between 2012 and 2013, stole parts of the American T-Mobile smartphone testing robot Tappy technology from its Bellevue headquarters in Washington.

The second is that after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the international Iran Nuclear Deal and imposed sanctions on that country, Huawei had the nerves to continue doing business with Iran thereby violating American sanction laws. The laws America accused Huawei of breaking include its National Emergencies Act, NEA, of 1976, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, IEEPA, of 1977 and the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, ILSA of 1996, later renamed the Iran Sanctions Act, ISA. These are local American laws but which that country insists must have universal applicability. A third point America has raised is that Huawei is likely to spy for the Chinese government.

On December 1, 2018, Meng Wanzhou, mother of four, who is Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer, deputy chair of its board and daughter of its founder, Ren Zhengfei, was detained on arrival at the Canadian Vancouver International Airport. Canada said she was being held on a provisional American extradition request for fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud in order to circumvent American sanctions against Iran. In addition, America said Meng will be charged with the alleged Huawei trade secret theft, a charge which carries ten years imprisonment.

What Canada did in seizing Meng and seeking to extradite her to America is a situation the late Afro Beat King Fela Anikulapo-Kuti will describe as a rat biting the tail of a sleeping cat. China, a top player in diplomatic games, simply responded nine days later by detaining Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

The cases of the two Canadians progress in relative proportion with the trial of Meng. They are political trials. So claims of the Canadian judicial system being transparent and even-handed in contrast with that of China, are laughable. In the first place, the arrest of Meng was a political move taken at the behest of America. This is also the logical line of her defence team which submitted that “her case should be tossed away because her arrest was an abuse of due process; the fraud charge she is facing in the United States is for a crime that doesn’t exist in Canada; and the U.S. government’s extradition request represents an abuse of power”.

More than 100 former Canadian diplomats had on September 20, 2020 asked the government to negotiate a swap of Meng for Canadians. The Green Party of Canada has also asked the government to set Meng free as “Canada cannot continue to be used as a pawn in a trade dispute between the United States and China”. It also asked the “Canadian government to stand up to the U.S. administration and demand that it drops the criminal charges”.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared enraged about Wednesday’s imprisonment of Michael Spavor, claiming that the sentencing is “unacceptable and unjust”, and that the trial “did not satisfy even the minimum standards required by international law”. He said: “For Mr. Spavor, as well as for Michael Kovrig who has also been arbitrarily detained, our top priority remains securing their immediate release. We will continue working around the clock to bring them home as soon as possible.”

But the Canadian justice system that has held Meng is no less unjust and opaque. If Canada plays the dirty game for its neighbour by holding a Chinese national hostage, it should know it will also be muddied. So Trudeau is just juggling diplomatic balls; he knows why the men are being held and what to do if his government wants them back home.

Canada is like a man that allows his head to be used for breaking coconut; not only would he at best have severe headache, but would also not be well enough to participate in eating the coconut. I love Canada, but its uncritical involvement in American-China diplomatic games, is, excuse my saying so, plain stupid.

But Canada has staked so much in the Meng case and its judiciary will be held to ridicule if it were to set Meng free. So, the best option is for America to withdraw the extradition request. With that, Spavor and Kovrig will return home. But if by any act of omission or commission, Meng is extradited for the political trial awaiting her in New York, not only are the Canadians likely to remain in Chinese prison, but there may be more hostage taking around the world.

If, like America, every country says its local laws must have universal applicability, there will be anarchy. There is, therefore, the need for countries to stand up against the United States and its unilateral sanctions which threaten world peace.