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Why ‘Hostage Diplomacy’ Works

From China to Iran to the United States, arbitrary detention is an immoral—and often effective—pressure tactic.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
In this picture taken on March 2, 2017, a cell for inmates waiting to see the prison medic is seen at Stanley Prison in Hong Kong.
In this picture taken on March 2, 2017, a cell for inmates waiting to see the prison medic is seen at Stanley Prison in Hong Kong. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech on Monday in which he denounced the practice of arbitrary detention, calling it “completely unacceptable.” He’s correct, but what’s especially puzzling about this practice is that states sometimes use it even when it is contrary to their stated aims and damaging to their overall interests.

China offers an apt illustration. A paramount goal of Chinese statecraft has been to convince the rest of the world that its rise to greater global influence is a benign development, and to portray the country as a responsible power with (nearly) everyone’s best interest at heart. As I discussed a few weeks ago, this “win-win” theme pervaded Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent address to the World Economic Forum, and he reportedly emphasized the need for Sino-American cooperation during his first phone conversation with new U.S. President Joe Biden. It is overwhelmingly in China’s interest not to come off as an angry, impulsive, belligerent, inhumane, revisionist power (which is why its adoption of so-called wolf warrior diplomacy is equally ill-advised), to avoid giving critics ammunition and to make it less likely that other countries will join forces to limit its influence.

Yet even as it tries to display a benign face toward the rest of the world, China has been aggressively targeting foreign nationals and dual citizens, typically on charges of espionage or violating various national security laws. In recent years it has detained two Canadians (Michael Kovrig of the International Crisis Group and Michael Spavor, director of a cultural exchange program in North Korea), a Chinese Australian news anchor (Cheng Lei), a Japanese history professor (Nobu Iwatani), a Chinese American businessman (Kai Li), and an American businesswoman of Chinese ancestry (Phan “Sandy” Phan-Gillis), among others. Some of those detained were subsequently released; other remain in custody, in some cases still awaiting trial in China’s opaque justice system.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech on Monday in which he denounced the practice of arbitrary detention, calling it “completely unacceptable.” He’s correct, but what’s especially puzzling about this practice is that states sometimes use it even when it is contrary to their stated aims and damaging to their overall interests.

China offers an apt illustration. A paramount goal of Chinese statecraft has been to convince the rest of the world that its rise to greater global influence is a benign development, and to portray the country as a responsible power with (nearly) everyone’s best interest at heart. As I discussed a few weeks ago, this “win-win” theme pervaded Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent address to the World Economic Forum, and he reportedly emphasized the need for Sino-American cooperation during his first phone conversation with new U.S. President Joe Biden. It is overwhelmingly in China’s interest not to come off as an angry, impulsive, belligerent, inhumane, revisionist power (which is why its adoption of so-called wolf warrior diplomacy is equally ill-advised), to avoid giving critics ammunition and to make it less likely that other countries will join forces to limit its influence.

Yet even as it tries to display a benign face toward the rest of the world, China has been aggressively targeting foreign nationals and dual citizens, typically on charges of espionage or violating various national security laws. In recent years it has detained two Canadians (Michael Kovrig of the International Crisis Group and Michael Spavor, director of a cultural exchange program in North Korea), a Chinese Australian news anchor (Cheng Lei), a Japanese history professor (Nobu Iwatani), a Chinese American businessman (Kai Li), and an American businesswoman of Chinese ancestry (Phan “Sandy” Phan-Gillis), among others. Some of those detained were subsequently released; other remain in custody, in some cases still awaiting trial in China’s opaque justice system.

Iran presents an even more puzzling picture. Under President Hassan Rouhani, Iran has been trying to get out of the penalty box in which it has been placed by the United States and its regional adversaries. Despite an obvious interest in normalizing relations with the rest of the world, Iran has continued to detain foreigners and dual citizens on dubious charges, often leaving them in prison or legal limbo for years. Prominent examples include Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, (an Iranian British employee of the Thomson Reuters Foundation who was detained in 2016 while visiting her parents and accused of “attempting to topple the Iranian regime”), Kavous Seyed-Emami (an Iranian Canadian professor who helped found the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation and supposedly died by suicide while in custody), and Xiyue Wang, a Chinese American graduate student who was arrested in 2016 while doing primary source research for a dissertation on the Qajar dynasty, given a 10-year sentence for “espionage,” and released in 2019 in a prisoner swap for Masoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist under indictment in the United States for trying to export unauthorized goods to Iran.

It is hard to imagine a policy more likely to poison Iran’s image in other countries and complicate its efforts to overcome its isolation. It gives opponents in other countries a convenient cudgel with which to bash the clerical regime, and some of its victims (such as Xiyue Wang) have eventually returned home and become vocal opponents of the regime (for entirely understandable reasons). In terms of Iran’s broader interests, persecuting people like Wang or Zaghari-Ratcliffe is stunning act of diplomatic malpractice.

To be clear: China and Iran are hardly the only countries that do this sort of thing. Turkey has detained a number of foreigners on seemingly dubious grounds and sought to use them as a source of leverage, and the United States has arrested or detained a number of people on sometimes questionable grounds as well. And let’s not forget Guantánamo.

What’s going on here? Why do states use individuals as diplomatic pawns, at the risk of making themselves look cruel and undermining their efforts to win greater international respect and admiration? I can think of at least five reasons.

First, in a few cases detainees may be guilty. Countries spy on each other all the time, and it beggars belief to imagine that all the people who have been detained by foreign powers are innocent of wrongdoing. If that is the case, however, one would expect the government holding them to go to considerable lengths to conduct a fair-minded judicial process and to lay out the evidence in clear and convincing detail. Instead, judicial proceedings in many of these cases are extremely opaque, reinforcing perceptions that the victims are being railroaded for political reasons.

Second, part of the problem may arise from genuine disagreements over what constitutes “espionage” or “threats to national security.” What outsiders regard as legitimate journalism, scholarly research, or other seemingly innocent activities might be seen as dangerous interference (or worse) by local authorities. This problem is more likely to arise when the government in question is insecure and has reason to think that other states are plotting against it. In the case of China, for example, Xi has been conducting a far-reaching crackdown on internal dissent, on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, on the Uighur minority group, and on anyone else he feels might challenge his own authority or that of the Chinese Communist Party. Given this mindset, an extremely broad definition of “threats to national security” is to be expected, and foreigners might appear to cross the line even if their activities are entirely benign.

Similarly, given that the United States has openly favored regime change in Iran, supported opposition movements in the past, conducted cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear program, and assassinated a top Iranian general just last year, it shouldn’t surprise us when Iranians are more inclined to see innocent activities in a paranoid light. This doesn’t excuse injustice against innocents, but it may help outsiders to understand it.

A third reason to seize innocent victims, of course, is the familiar logic of tit-for-tat. China’s detention of the two Michaels is clearly an act of retaliation for Canada’s imposition of house arrest on Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou. Here the response is intended either to gain assets that can be exchanged later for the release of the initial detainee or to impose costs on the other side and thus deter similar actions in the future.

Fourth, taking hostages in this way can also be a way to gain coercive leverage. Hamas used the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as leverage to obtain the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011, but imprisoned foreigners may also be viewed as a potential source of leverage in broader political disputes. China’s recent arrest of Australian broadcaster Cheng Lei occurred in the context of the sharply deteriorating relationship between Canberra and Beijing, and it may be intended as a show of Chinese resolve and a reminder of the other ways that China can make life difficult for Australia.

Finally, states are not unified, fully rational actors, and arbitrary detentions can be used to defend narrow domestic interests rather than advance the position of the country as a whole. In some cases, hard-line factions that fear a rapprochement with the outside world would undermine their own power and status may seize hostages in order to derail efforts at accommodation. Detaining foreigners can also put moderates in the awkward position of appearing less patriotic than the hard-liners, who claim to be defending the nation from its nefarious foreign enemies. This dynamic is almost certainly operating in Iran, where hard-liners have used the detention of foreigners as a way to complicate and delay progress toward accommodation. (Of course, opponents of accommodation in the United States and elsewhere often engage in their own provocations in order to achieve much the same goal.)

Thus, what might initially appear to be needlessly provocative and counterproductive behavior may have a certain logic behind it, at least some of the time. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that the costs of this kind of behavior usually outweigh the benefits. Using innocent people as political pawns can only cast a government in an unflattering light and heighten foreign concerns about its reliability, integrity, and long-term intentions. In most cases, putting innocent people into custody, holding them without trial, convicting them on bogus charges, and eventually releasing them after extended periods of captivity yields nothing more than reams of bad publicity. Governments that want the world to trust them should think twice about using this ruthless and revolting tactic, and Blinken was right to call attention to it.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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