It’s like an episode from Homeland.
In December 2018 Canadian officials arrested Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of China’s biggest telecom equipment company Huawei, following an extradition request from the United States. The charge against Meng was violating sanctions against Iran, but she is no ordinary corporate executive. She’s also the daughter of Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei, which meant Beijing was bound to fire back.
So nine days later two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, were sandbagged by Chinese police. They’ve been held without charges ever since. In January Canadian embassy officials were denied access to both men, on the flimsy excuse of COVID restrictions.
Now after 550 days in prison without access to lawyers or family, Kovrig and Spavor have been charged with espionage. No one is fooled by this charade. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said Chinese officials made it clear the twin arrests were retaliation for Meng’s arrest: and that their fate depends on what happens to Meng (a Canadian court had ruled in May that her extradition process will continue).
There’s much more at stake here than just Cold War-style spy versus spy tit-for-tat, however. The arrests come against the backdrop of America’s push to keep its closest allies, including Canada, from allowing Huawei to build their future 5G wireless networks. If Canada joins the Huawei bandwagon, that would significantly bolster China’s bid to dominate this technology for the rest of this century.
In short, the Kovrig and Spavor ordeals are part of Beijing’s effort to bully Canada into line, even though the evidence continues to mount of Huawei’s working with Chinese government-backed spying and cyber mischief (Huawei has repeatedly denied such charges). Innovation, Science, and Industry minister Naveep Bains has admitted publicly that the Chinese have been applying pressure to make Canada adopt Huawei’s 5G technology. The charges against Kovrig and Spavor are just the latest push.
Beijing knows getting Canada to give way would drive a wedge into the U.S.-Canada strategic alliance. Although Huawei once supplied Canada’s 4G LTE wireless networks, giving the tech monolith access to 5G would have far more serious security consequences. It might even threaten Canada’s status as a member of the ultra-exclusive Five Eyes intelligence network, which includes Britain, Australia, and New Zealand (both Australia and New Zealand have joined the U.S. in banning Huawei from developing 5G, while Britain has avoided an outright ban by limiting Huawei’s future role out of security concerns).
Fortunately, Washington and Ottawa both realize the big stakes involved in the Kovrig-Spavor case. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Monday, “These charges are politically motivated and completely groundless. The United States stands with Canada in calling on Beijing for the immediate release of the two men and rejects the use of these unjustified detentions to coerce Canada.”
Prime Minister Trudeau has been unbowed by Beijing’s bullying, while Canada’s telecom carriers are also moving in the right direction. This month Telus announced it will use Western companies Ericsson and Nokia, not Huawei, for its 5G buildout; Bell Canada and Rogers Communications are also working with Ericsson to roll out their 5G networks (Bell Canada also has an arrangement with Nokia).
If Canada continues to stand firm, the U.S.-Canada alliance will score a double win.
First, telling Beijing and Huawei where to get off will encourage Britain to do the same, and bolster Australia and New Zealand’s commitment to the Huawei ban.
Second, Canada is America’s perfect ally for securing 5G with the virtually unhackable security systems of the future, using quantum technology such as Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) and advanced software solutions that will stand up against attacks by a future quantum computer. For example, the Canadian company ISARA Corporation has been developing and deploying algorithms that will protect against quantum assault. The Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo-Ontario, which was founded by Blackberry co-founder Mike Lazaridis, has been leading the world on cutting-edge developments in quantum technology, that would benefit both U.S. companies and the U.S. government.
Canada is also a leading developer of artificial intelligence technology, which will be crucial for building strong resilient 5G networks.
Full disclosure: I’ve been working for the past three years to build a broad-based U.S.-Canada alliance in quantum technology. By defying Huawei and Beijing’s blackmail, Ottawa will signal that our two nations are destined to be invincible partners on the high-tech frontier, not only for 5G but for our quantum future.
Read in Forbes