OTTAWA - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed any suggestion that two Canadians being detained in China are on par with the arrest here of a Chinese tech executive at the United States' behest, firing a counter-punch Thursday in an escalating feud between Canada and China.
Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been held in China since shortly after Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of American authorities, who want to try her over allegations of fraud in violating Iran sanctions. Her extradition hearing is ongoing.
During an official visit to Canada, Pompeo said the Canadian detentions and Meng's arrest are not "morally similar," suggesting instead that linking these two issues is "what China wants to talk about."
"These are fundamentally different matters than the Canadian decision to use their due process and the rule of law to behave in a way that's deeply consistent with the way decent nations work," Pompeo said.
Pompeo unprompted and curt interjection came in the wake of a question to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland during a joint press conference after the two wrapped up one-on-one meetings. A reporter from the New York Times — which has long been in U.S. President Donald Trump's crosshairs — asked Freeland if Canada has sought for the U.S. to withdraw its extradition request in order to secure the releases of Kovrig and Spavor.
China issued comments Thursday saying the fate of the two Canadians, and the increasing difficulties in China-Canada relations, is Canada's fault and is linked to Meng's detention.
"When you ask this question, you connect them up that's what China wants to talk about," Pompeo said. "They want to talk about these two as if they are equivalent, as if they were morally similar, which they fundamentally are not."
China's arbitrary detention of the two Canadians was "fundamentally different as a human rights matter, as a rule of law matter" than Meng's extradition case, he added.
Pompeo stressed that Trump was "unambiguous" in making it known that America is concerned about China's "inappropriate behaviour" during a recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He added that American officials have engaged in "other diplomatic activity" to make the case for the release of Kovrig and Spavor.
He did not elaborate on any other steps the U.S. would be willing to take to help free the two Canadians.
Any decisions in Canada about Meng's case will be left to civil servants and the criminal justice system, as it ought to be, Freeland said. Meng's future, she added, would not be a political decision.
Questions about China loomed over Pompeo's first official visit to Ottawa as Trump's top diplomat. China was on the agenda when he met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, one of a number of hot-button issues the two discussed ahead of the upcoming G7 summit this weekend.
Trudeau thanked the U.S. for its support in working on the release of Spavor and Kovrig during brief remarks ahead of their closed-door meeting, adding that he looked forward to discussions about how they could move ahead with getting the two men released.
Canada and the U.S. are locked in differing battles with Beijing — the Americans over trade issues, primarily, while Canada is in a diplomatic dance over Kovrig, Spavor and China's decision to block imports of some Canadian agricultural products.
The Trudeau Liberals and the Chinese government have traded escalating jabs since Canada's joint statement with the European Union over the weekend on the current unrest in Hong Kong.
The Chinese government has effectively told Canada to butt out, and that its internal affairs are none of Canada's business.
Trudeau fired back Wednesday during a speech on foreign policy, where he emphasized Canada wasn't going to back down — not on the case of Kovrig and Spavor, and not on the need to safeguard the human rights and freedoms of the 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong and the rest of the people there.
The war of words continued Thursday during a regular press conference in China with a foreign ministry spokesperson.
"Loudness is not necessarily persuasive and people can tell right from wrong," said Geng Shuang, according to an English transcript of a news conference published online.
"We urge the Canadian side to reflect upon its wrongdoing, take China's solemn position and concerns seriously, immediately release Ms. Meng Wanzhou and ensure her safe return to China."
Trudeau and Trump don't have a scheduled meeting, as yet, when the G7 summit gets underway in Biarritz, France, this weekend, but the two spoke by phone late last week about the Chinese detentions, the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong and their shared support of the ratification of the new North American trade deal.
A readout of this conversation issued by the Prime Minister's Office said the two looked forward to furthering these discussions "when they see each other at the upcoming G7 summit."