Former foreign minister Gareth Evans has called on the Morrison government to step up its protest to Beijing over China’s detention of two Canadians, one of whom Mr Evans knows personally and says is a victim of political retaliation by the Chinese government.
Mr Evans was for a decade the president and chief executive of the International Crisis Group think tank, whose senior adviser for north-east Asia, Michael Kovrig, has been detained in apparent retribution for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou pending possible extradition to the United States.
“The Canadian arrests are deeply troubling, and it’s time for the Australian government to join those others in the international community saying so loudly and clearly,” Mr Evans said.
“In the case of Michael Kovrig, whom I know personally, I am totally confident that it is only about retaliation against Canada for the Meng case and in reality has nothing to do with his or Crisis Group’s foreign policy analysis and advocacy activities in China, which have always been, to my knowledge, open and above board, objectively focused, and in fact well respected by Chinese policymakers, advisers and analysts.”
Mr Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Canadian businessman Michael Spavor were arrested in December on allegations they threatened Chinese national security.
But Canada and a wide range of international observers say the arrests were clearly a tit-for-tat diplomatic jab after Canadian authorities arrested Ms Meng and began judicial procedures to consider her extradition to the US, where the Huawei executive is wanted on fraud charges relating to circumvention of American nuclear sanctions against Iran.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has expressed concern over the Canadians’ detention and suggested it is a case of political retaliation but stopped short of joining Canada and the US in calling for their immediate release.
She said Australia had already raised its concerns with the Chinese government.
But Mr Evans said Australia should publicly urge China to release the two men immediately and added that the time for private diplomacy was over.
“It is totally counterproductive for Beijing’s wider international credibility to be acting as it is, and time for the Australian government to be making that point much more sharply and clearly, both privately and publicly, than it has so far, and calling explicitly for the two’s immediate release,” he said.
“Quiet diplomacy is always worth trying first up, but it has clearly run its course here.”
Mr Evans was one of Australia’s longest-serving foreign ministers, holding the job from 1988 to 1996.
While Ms Meng has been released on bail, Mr Kovrig is reportedly being held at a secret location. Reports have said he is forced to sleep with lights on and is subjected to daily questioning.
Senator Payne’s expression of concern followed publication of an open letter by 36 leading Australian foreign policy and China experts calling on the government to speak out about the detention of the Canadians.
Some scholars have warned that unless there is strong international condemnation over the detention, Beijing might be emboldened to jail other international citizens whose governments get on China’s wrong side.
By David Wroe