The United States Doesn’t Have Your Back
The Trump administration’s message to Canada and other U.S. allies is clear: If you take heat for helping Washington, you’re on your own.
John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, got fired over the weekend for speaking the truth about the impossible dilemma that the Trump administration has created for its closest allies. In the face of growing Chinese bullying over Canada’s arrest of Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the United States, McCallum had the temerity to state that if the Trump administration won’t stand behind Canada then it would better if Washington dropped its extradition request.
The United States, in the midst of its escalating trade war with China, has launched a global campaign to persuade allies to bar Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, from any contracts to build the next generation of 5G wireless systems. Those systems could control everything from self-driving cars to power plants, and Washington fears that the company’s close ties to the Beijing government pose major risks of espionage and even tampering.
With Canada, U.S. President Donald Trump’s government has gone a step further. At the request of the United States, Canada last month arrested Meng, the daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei, on allegations that she lied about Huawei’s involvement in Iran in an effort to evade U.S. sanctions.
The Justice Department on Monday released an indictment charging Meng with repeatedly lying to U.S. banks about Huawei’s business dealings with Iran. The indictment also detailed a decadelong effort by the company to steal U.S. corporate trade secrets, an issue at the heart of the administration’s trade fight with China.
But the backlash Canada has faced from China since the arrest and the token support it has received from Washington will serve as a warning to other U.S. allies: If you stand with the United States, and for the values it has long embraced, it may not stand with you.
Indeed, the Huawei case may come to be seen as the first shot in a new cold war, and close U.S. allies like Canada, Britain, and Germany are desperately trying to figure out where they fit in. If they reject U.S. concerns over Chinese espionage, they could cut themselves off from U.S. intelligence-sharing. But if they side with the United States, they may find themselves alone facing an angry China.
Canada is learning the hard way. After the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Meng while she was changing planes at Vancouver International Airport, Beijing’s response was swift and furious. It arrested and detained two Canadians—the former diplomat Michael Kovrig and the entrepreneur Michael Spavor—on vague charges of “engaging in activities that endanger the national security of China.” It also retried another Canadian already detained on drug charges, sentencing him to death. China’s ambassador to Ottawa accused Canada of “backstabbing” China and has warned of further retaliation if Canada follows through on the U.S. request to bar Huawei’s technology on security grounds.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has tried to play by the old rules, insisting that it had no choice but to honor the U.S. extradition request. But so far it has received virtually no backing from the Trump administration in standing up to China’s bullying response. The U.S. State Department issued a weak statement of concern “about the arbitrary detentions and politically motivated sentencing of Canadian nationals.” Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, has been trying to drum up international condemnation to put pressure on China, but with little effect so far.
Trump has said nothing at all about China’s arrests of the Canadians. He has suggested he may be willing to use Meng as a bargaining chip in the trade war with China, whatever the fallout for Canada. His administration was similarly mute when Canada found itself in a dispute last year over its criticisms of the arrests of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom responded by expelling the Canadian ambassador and threatening to cut off trade ties with Canada. Rather than standing with Canada, the Trump administration chose to protect its relationship with the authoritarian Saudi monarchy at the cost of human rights and the rule of law.
In the Huawei case, the offense by Canadian ambassador McCallum was to state the obvious—without U.S. help forthcoming, it would be far better for Canada if Meng were released. He told reporters that Meng had a “strong” legal case for fighting extradition to the United States and then later doubled down by telling the Star Vancouver it would be “great” for Canada if the United States dropped its extradition request. The Huawei CFO is currently out on $10 million bail and under house arrest in Vancouver awaiting her hearing. McCallum further told the Star that the United States “should have Canada’s back, because we are paying a price for fulfilling the terms of our extradition treaty.”
McCallum’s statements were so sharply at odds with the Canadian government’s insistence that it is simply adhering to its treaty obligations to the United States that Trudeau had little choice but to ask him to resign. But McCallum was right.
The arrest has left Canada where it never wanted to be—caught in the middle of an escalating trade and security conflict between the world’s two strongest powers. The Trudeau government has found itself clinging to a principled adherence to “the rule of law,” while trapped between one country that has never much supported the notion and another that is no longer its champion.
Washington’s treatment of Canada has larger implications. The United States has been stepping up warnings to allies to halt purchases from Huawei, which it suspects may be a tool for Chinese surveillance. While Huawei has been all but barred from the United States, it is a major player around the world, selling the physical infrastructure and software that will be at the heart of the next generation of 5G wireless networks. Huawei’s equipment could be at the center of the emerging “internet of things” in which everything from autonomous vehicles to “smart cities” will rely on these networks.
Some countries have followed the U.S. lead already. Australia banned both Huawei and China’s ZTE last summer. But China has responded angrily and is warning other countries that relations will be severely damaged if they follow the U.S. lead. Canada faces the same choice, but its leading telecoms companies are already large buyers of Huawei gear, and a decision to bar Huawei would cause a further downward spiral in relations with China.
In such an environment, it is vital that Washington demonstrate to allies that it will stand with them if they side with the United States over China. Instead, with a president who has even cast doubt on the value of the NATO alliance, the United States is increasingly letting its closest allies fend for themselves. What were once routine requests, like extradition, will now be weighed carefully by allied leaders aware that they will have to face the consequences on their own.
Don’t be surprised if the next time Washington asks Ottawa for such help, the Mounties show up at the airport five minutes too late.