Editorial: Beware Beijing’s bullying behaviour

As of Jan. 1, Global Affairs Canada had not changed its travel advisory for people contemplating a trip to China. “Exercise a high degree of caution,” said the advisory ­— the same language that has been on the website since weeks before the Chinese government started detaining Canadian citizens.

Nothing abnormal here, the advisory seemed to imply; move along.

In December, Tourism Minister Mélanie Joly cancelled a visit to Beijing and British Columbia’s trade mission to China was axed. Outdoor clothing company Canada Goose, meanwhile, postponed the opening of its Beijing store.

There will be more such travel and business cancellations. Countries that arbitrarily arrest visitors tend to achieve the result of driving other visitors away.

Ah yes, China backers observe, but Canada has arrested a Chinese national here, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, and she is legally unable to leave while the case for extraditing her to the United States works its way through our courts. The arrests in China of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were only to be expected in retaliation.

Expected, perhaps, but that hardly makes them acceptable. Not to a liberal democracy where rule of law means what it says: We enforce the rules consistently, regardless of whether there is a trade dispute, regardless of wider security concerns about a given company, regardless of political inconvenience.

China understands this perfectly, but obtusely pretends not to. Donald Trump does the same, even suggesting he might interfere in a legal case that is separate from his personal agenda.

Until now, Canada has tried to keep this consular crisis — for that is certainly what the arrests of Spavor and Kovrig are — separate from the U.S.-China trade war, and indeed from wider Canada-China questions, such as our own pursuit of free trade. That is how countries with deep ties normally try to conduct their diplomacy: compartmentalize problems so they do not bring the entire relationship to a crashing halt.

But that compartmentalization can’t go on indefinitely. This nation can’t continue to evade the fundamental disdain for law that marks Beijing’s global ambitions.

Which brings us to Canada’s imagined trade deal with China. The idea is fraught, precisely because China respects neither rules nor rights. Given its thuggish reaction to Meng’s extradition case, it doesn’t take much to imagine what China might do if disagreements arose over how to interpret a formal, signed accord.

It’s time to toughen up that travel warning ­— and add a “buyer beware” clause on trade, too.

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