The conflict between Canada and China over detainment resurfaced following allegations of inadvertent espionage.

The ongoing diplomatic dispute caused by China’s capture of two Canadian citizens has resurfaced following one of the men’s assertion that he was detained for unintentionally sharing information with Canada and its partners.

The Globe and Mail stated that Michael Spavor is looking for a large financial agreement from the Canadian government, claiming that he unknowingly gave information on North Korea to his Canadian counterpart Michael Kovrig, who then shared it with Canada and its Five Eyes partners.

In 2018, two individuals were taken into custody following the detainment of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada. This was due to potential breaches of trade sanctions against Iran. According to Chinese officials, Spavor, who resided near the North Korean border and organized cultural exchanges, was providing information to Kovrig. Kovrig had previously taken a hiatus from his diplomatic position at Canada’s embassy in Beijing from 2012 to 2014 to work at the International Crisis Group. The arrests of “the two Michaels” were criticized as an act of “hostage diplomacy” by Canada and its allies.

Spavor received an 11-year prison sentence in August 2021 for espionage, while Kovrig’s verdict from a closed trial in March was never disclosed. Both men were released by China in September of the same year following a resolution between US prosecutors and Meng Wanzhou, ending a 1,000-day standoff.

After Spavor made statements over the weekend, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa restated their allegations that the men were involved in activities that threatened China’s national security.

The embassy stated on Sunday that recent reports reaffirm the undeniable truth. They also argued that Canada’s emphasis on China’s alleged “arbitrary detention” is hypocritical, resembling a thief calling out for others to stop stealing.

However, the accusations made by Spavor have been met with complete denials from Canada and varying responses from specialists.

The global affairs department expressed to the Guardian that the imprisonment of the two individuals was unfair and not acceptable. They also stated that their trials did not meet the basic requirements outlined by international law.

John Babcock, a representative for the ministry, stated that continuously promoting the idea that Michael was engaged in espionage only reinforces a false story that led to their detainment in China.

“After being released from unjust imprisonment, the Canadian government has continued to provide assistance to help them recover from their challenging ordeal. Both individuals have the freedom to share their accounts of their arbitrary detention in China. Due to privacy concerns, no additional details can be shared.”

The focus of the accusations lies in Kovrig’s involvement with Canada’s global security reporting program (GSRP). This program produces targeted diplomatic reports on security and stability matters in countries that are of importance to Canada. These reports are not confidential and are shared among the foreign affairs ministry and other collaborating departments.

On social media, Kerry Buck, a former ambassador and assistant deputy minister for international security, referred to Spavor’s accusations as “absurd.”

The diplomats of GSRP create diplomatic reports which are reviewed by individuals in Ottawa, including the CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service). Some of these reports may contain information that is of interest to CSIS and other parties. However, this does not classify GSRP diplomats as “spies” in any way.

According to Stephanie Carvin, an internal relations professor at Carleton University, the denial by the global affairs ministry that Kovrig was a spy does not change the fact that he was gathering intelligence. She believes Canada should consider how this may be perceived by other nations.

“The perception of intelligence is shifting in our discussions. There is much talk about open source intelligence, which may not necessarily come from secretive origins but should still be regarded as intelligence.”

However, she highlights that Kovrig was not employed by global affairs and had stopped submitting reports through the GSRP at the time of his detention. The GSRP is a government division that is not widely recognized.

Carvin stated that China’s decision to detain the Michaels was unjust and misguided. However, this situation also serves as a reminder of the repercussions of Canada’s hesitation on whether to establish a foreign human intelligence agency.

While Canada may not have a desire for an MI6, they do seek information from their citizens residing abroad about their respective host countries. This ambiguity poses a considerable level of danger for GSRP agents [such as Kovrig] and the individuals with whom they communicate.


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