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2 Canadians To Face Trial For Espionage In China

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are again meeting with their Chinese counterparts today in Alaska. The talks yesterday got off to a very heated start, which just really highlights how tense U.S.-China relations are. The list of disagreements is long, from trade to human rights and democracy, and one thing that could come up in these talks - the fate of two Canadians that face trial in China. The two are widely seen as pawns in a geopolitical tug of war between Washington and Beijing. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In December 2018, Chinese authorities arrested Canadians Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur, and Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat. They were charged with espionage. Their arrests were immediately seen as a retaliatory move because they happened just days after Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei. The Trump administration asked Canada to arrest Meng for evading U.S. sanctions on Iran. She's currently fighting her extradition to the U.S. in a Vancouver courtroom.

ROLAND PARIS: For China, Ms. Meng's detention is a huge issue. They view it as part of an attempt by the United States to target Huawei.

NORTHAM: Roland Paris is a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He says Ottawa had to honor the extradition request, but it has completely dominated Canada's relationship with China.

PARIS: It's effectively frozen bilateral relations, and it's hardened Canadian public attitudes in a really striking way. But I think many Canadians also think the U.S. government bears some responsibility to help resolve the situation because Canada has paid an enormous price for fulfilling the terms of its extradition treaty with the U.S.

NORTHAM: Paris says former President Trump's suggestion that Meng could be used as a bargaining chip in fraught trade negotiations between China and the U.S. only complicated the situation. During a virtual meeting with Trudeau in February, President Biden pledged to help free Kovrig and Spavor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Human beings are not bartering chips. You know, we're going to work together until we get their safe return.

NORTHAM: It's unclear what pressure the U.S. can bring to bear at the talks today in Alaska. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAS OF YEARS' "LIKE TALL SHIPS UPON THE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.