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Return of Meng and ‘The Michaels’ – Not a Détente

On September 25, after 3 years of detention in Canada, Huawei’s chief financial officer and CEO’s daughter, Meng Wanzhou stepped off of her plane arriving at Shenzhen International airport, waving to an exhilarated crowd who waved back with dozens of Chinese flags. In a blatant hostage exchange, Michael Spavor and Michael Korvig, the two detained Canadians colloquially referred to as ‘the Michaels’, were also released. 

Meng was first detained by Canadian police in Vancouver airport before being arrested under a US extradition request in December 2018. She was charged for committing fraud in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran and later for trade secret theft. Tens days after Meng’s apprehension, Spavor and Korvig were arrested in China and were later formally charged for espionage.

Today, the sudden mutual release marked the end of a hostage-holding stalemate between Canada and China. However, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) was effectively in charge of the case from Meng’s arrest and hearing to her charge and release, implying that the incident is overshadowed by the grand scheme of Sino-U.S. relations rather than merely a source of tension between Canada and China.

Prominent news sources contend that the release should mark an end to a point of friction between the superpowers or even an opportunity for further compromise. Although this occasion of hostage diplomacy has drawn to a close, the episode is anything but an indication of improvements in US-China relations. There is little to suggest Meng’s case will lead to further diplomatic reconciliation by itself. In reality, under the context of successful US sanctions, lingering international hostility, and unwavering political narratives, Meng’s release does not practically change either party’s primary objectives.

Firstly, US sanctions against Huawei have successfully crumbled the tech giant’s competitiveness in the global market. Unable to form government contracts, reach international chip technology providers, and even use Google services on their devices, Huawei’s global smartphone market share experienced near 30 percent drop from 2020, and its Chinese share also experienced a significant slump from 42 percent in 2019 to 26 percent today. As Huawei fades out of its global position, Meng’s practical relevance diminishes too. Meng’s captivity was immaterial to the US’ ability to exert pressure on China, and her return will not reinvigorate Huawei in any way. Even prior to Meng’s release Huawei’s decline had been a foregone conclusion. 

Additionally, mutual hostility between the two forces persists and has even hardened after the incident. One Chinese official spokeswoman maintains that the prisoner saga “was the political persecution of a Chinese citizen with the goal of crushing a Chinese high-tech enterprise,” while designating the incident as one of “arbitrary detention” by the US and Canada. US polls also show record-high hostility towards China due to a collection of issues, including technology and human rights. Canadian poles have also indicated greater popular animosity towards China, while another source indicated that more than 75% of Canadians “want the tech giant [Huawei] banned from the country’s 5G network.” Overall, not only the incident failed to relax US-China relations, it soured Canada-China relations too. 

Most importantly, Meng’s case emerged as a political success for both the Biden administration and the Chinese government, rather than an honest attempt by both parties to resolve their differences. For the US, not only did the DOJ obtain Meng’s signature on the Statement of Facts, where she recognized multiple untrue statements she made, effectively confessing to her wrongdoing, it also resolved the case as a clean undoing of Trump’s adversarial policy against China, reinforcing a peace-seeking image after the original political agenda of weakening Huawei has taken concrete effect. If there are any hopes to see a US-China détent, much of the expectations will fall on how persistent Biden’s administration is in this effort, especially against objections in Congress

On the other hand, Chinese state media fully utilized this event as mass propaganda. It celebrated Meng’s return with a “hero’s welcome,” displaying images of festive imagery and her personal excitement to declare the nation’s diplomatic victory. National media also ignored the content of her deferred prosecution agreement by spreading misleading information on her refusal to “plead guilty” as evidence of arbitrary US political oppression in contrast to the rightful Chinese victimhood. Another major newspaper called this the “great success of the Chinese people” with due merit to “the strong leadership by the party, the persistent efforts by the Chinese government, and the collective support by all Chinese citizens.”

This incident clarified two distinct messages that the US and China have sent out. Namely, the US showed that it has come out of the situation by maintaining judicial integrity, expressing the will to move on, and asserting diplomatic dominance. It emphasizes that by deciding to release Meng, the US has the power to control the progress of US-China diplomacy while retaining the moral and legal high ground. Oppositely, China proves to the U.S. that it will always maintain firm denunciation of US injustice in almost all aspects of its diplomacy, that China is willing to maintain diplomatic stalling (or reluctance to concede) during future crises, and that China is dedicated to an “equal trading” style of foreign policy. Specific to this final idea, Donald C. Clark, a George Washington Law School professor and China expert, conceptualized the message as “if you give them [China] what they want, they will deliver as agreed.”

Beyond the lack of positivity, the nature of Meng’s detention and its sudden resolution also draw attention to the true insignificance of the resolution itself. 

Meng’s case is of peripheral interest to both governments. Given other recent military maneuvers, this solution could be an indication of both governments’ intention to concentrate on other issues. The recent AUKUS security alliance allowed Australia to build nuclear-fueled submarines, echoing cold war style naval packs and leading to tension within the Chinese government as well. China and Russia similarly concluded the two consecutive joint military exercises in NingXia and Orenburg Oblast with the latter being an international anti-terrorism drill. This event marks another stage of growing ties between the two powers since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, possibly suggesting more extensive security cooperation vis-a-vis the western alliance. China also restricted the largest area since 1981 in the South China Sea for military drills in August this year, showing its ever-increasing naval might and probably preparing for its future operations in the area. 

Evidently, the Meng case is no longer the fulcrum of the US-China conflict, but its de-escalation should not mark a resolution of the two countries’ ill-will.

Original illustration by Rachel Zhu