Government accused of being ‘silent’ on China’s detention of two Canadian citizens
Businessman Michael Spavor (left) and former diplomat Michael Kovrig were detained in China earlier this month. (AP)
Foreign policy experts have called on the Federal Government to speak out about China’s detention of two Canadian citizens, saying Australia is “at odds” with its allies and security partners in keeping quiet about it.
- Canada says the pair are caught up in a diplomatic row and has called for their release
- The country’s major Western allies have made similar public statements — but not Australia
- Foreign policy experts say Australia should support Canada’s request for the release of Mr Spavor and Mr Kovrig
The detention of entrepreneur Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig earlier this month came shortly after Canada arrested a Huawei executive in Vancouver at the request of the United States.
Canada has called for the pair — accused by China of endangering state security — to be released, suggesting they have been caught up in an escalating diplomatic row.
Canada’s major Western allies have made similar public statements, but not Australia.
“It’s difficult to understand why the Australian Government has been so silent on this fundamental issue of democratic values,” said the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, Rory Medcalf.
He is one of 30 scholars, former diplomats and researchers who have signed a petition asking Foreign Minister Marise Payne to back Canada’s call for the pair to be immediately released.
“We ask the Australian Government without further delay to support Canada’s call for the immediate release of these two detainees,” the petition reads.
“The European Union, United States, United Kingdom, Germany and France have each issued statements of concern regarding the apparently political motivation for the arrests of these Canadian citizens, which raise serious concerns about legitimate research and business practices in China.
“It is time for Australia to do the same.”
Canada, US call for China to release both men
Speaking just before Christmas, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an appeal for the release of Mr Spavor and Mr Kovrig, blaming their detention on tense US-China relations.
“This is one of the situations you get in when the two largest economies in the world, China and the United States, start picking a fight with each other,” he said.
“The escalating trade war between them is going to have all sorts of unintended consequences.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo likewise called for China to release both men.
“The unlawful detention of two Canadian citizens is unacceptable. They ought to be returned.”
Mr Medcalf and the other foreign policy experts who have signed the petition want to see Ms Payne speak out too.
“It’s fair to assume the Government has made quiet representations to China on this issue already, but I think the increased frustration of this group of scholars is that the quiet approach isn’t working.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the US-China trade war will have “unintended consequences”. (Reuters: Ruben Sprich)
He said it is possible the Australian Government believes it has done its fair share of criticising China, or that it is concerned public comments would jeopardise bilateral relations.
“Or it simply could be a sign of the increasing confusion and dysfunction that we’ve seen in Government in Canberra in recent months.”
He warned against abandoning like-minded allies in such circumstances.
“If middle-sized democracies don’t stand together against offensive behaviour by China on the international stage, then one by one we’ll be subjected to similar punishment or bullying on those occasions when our interests clash with China’s.”
Australia ‘at odds with other liberal democracies’
ANU visiting fellow Adam Ni is going to China next month as part of his regular travels to the country.
He signed the petition, arguing it is short-sighted of Australia not to publicly support Canada in this case.
“It really puts Australia at odds with other liberal democracies on this issue,” he said.
“If moral suasion is not enough, then I think the Australian Government should really look at our national interest to ensure that when something like this happens to Australian nationals, then like-minded countries would likewise support our protests against the Chinese Government.
“Researchers like me, we travel to China frequently in order to do research.
“Under other circumstances, if there was trouble in Australian-China relations, then it is people like me … that might be harassed by the Chinese Government or potentially even detained.”
Ms Payne has declined to comment.
Foreign policy experts have called on Ms Payne to speak up about the detention of Mr Spavor and Mr Kovrig. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)