Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said Australia is “very concerned” the arrest of two Canadians in China represents political retaliation by Beijing over the arrest of a senior Huawei executive on fraud allegations.
But Senator Payne has stopped short of joining Canada and the US in demanding the two men’s immediate release, despite warnings by foreign affairs experts that Australia needs to strongly back like-minded countries to stop political arrests of foreigners becoming normal behaviour by China.
Senator Payne’s comments followed the publication by 36 foreign policy scholars and China analysts calling on the Morrison government to speak out against the arrests of the two Canadian men, days after the US, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union had publicly backed Canada.
Michael Kovrig, a Canadian former diplomat who is now an adviser to the International Crisis Group and Michael Spavor, a Canadian businessman, have been detained on allegations of endangering Chinese national security.
But Canada believes the detentions are retaliation for the arrest in Canada of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. Ms Meng faces possible extradition to the United States on fraud charges for circumventing American sanctions against Iran.
Senator Payne issued a statement on Sunday night expressing “concern” over the arrests of the Canadians.
She clearly indicated that while Canada was following proper process under the rule of law, China’s actions suggested political retaliation.
“The Australian government is concerned about the recent detention of two Canadian citizens in China,” she said.
“We would be very concerned if these cases were related to legal proceedings currently underway in Canada involving a Chinese citizen, Ms Meng Wanzhou.”
Britain, Germany and France all specifically demanded the Canadians be treated fairly and transparency under the rule of law, but Senator Payne’s statements did not include these words.
The open letter by experts urged the Australian government to support “without further delay” Canada’s call for the two men’s release.
China’s embassy in Canberra did not respond to requests for comment. But Beijing has previously accused Britain and Europe of double standards by speaking out against the Canadians’ detention but not the arrest of Ms Meng.
All of the countries backing Canada have pointedly stated they trust the fairness and independence of its judicial system.
One of the scholars who signed the letter, Rory Medcalf of the Australian National University’s National Security College, said he had been a “bit surprised” Australia had taken so long to speak up. If democracies did not publicly criticise such behaviour by Beijing, there was a risk it would become accepted, he said.
“It’s a game changer in China’s international behaviour – basically taking hostages as a tactic of statecraft,” he said.
“An underwhelming response by Australia and other democracies would only help normalise China’s outrageous use of hostage-taking as a tool of diplomacy.
“Next time it could be innocent Australian scholars or entrepreneurs being seized in this way, and we would want other democracies to be fulsome in their solidarity with us.”
Another top scholar and signatory to the letter, Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove, said: “Australia should speak up clearly for its principles and for its friends.”
The open letter by experts represents a wide range of scholars including some not regarded as typical China critics, reinforcing the depth of negative views about Beijing’s conduct.
By David Wroe