Two Canadians are being investigated by China for spying, but Ottawa has stayed quiet. It's a sign of a government trying, for now, to avoid making things worse. But the detention of Christian café owners Kevin and Julia Garratt still has the potential to blow a hole in Canada-China relations.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, planning to travel to China in November, will be under domestic political pressure to speak out eventually. And that could be heightened because it is a case that might raise concerns of religious-freedom issues close to the heart of his Conservative base.
The federal government has so far said little, out of concern that launching public pressure could backfire. Neither Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird nor junior minister Lynne Yelich, let alone the Prime Minister, made any comment on the detention of the Canadian couple on serious spying allegations.
Instead, the only terse comment came from a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department, John Babcock, who said consular officials were "providing assistance" to the couple. "We are in contact with local Chinese authorities and the family, and are monitoring developments closely," he said.
The ghostly silence on a high-profile topic has a purpose: Public pressure could escalate tensions with Beijing and make Chinese officials feel forced into pursuing charges. It's common for Ottawa to first cool tensions in such cases, in the hope this provides the other government an opportunity to backtrack. That's especially the case with China, said University of British Columbia international relations professor Paul Evans. "In general, public statements are counter-productive for the individuals involved," he said.
Some suspect the Garratts' detention is already a deliberate escalation. Brock University China expert Charles Burton said the case has the hallmarks of a tit-for-tat for Mr. Harper's public calling-out of China last week for allegedly hacking into the computer system of the National Research Council (NRC).
The timing is close, and the allegations – that the Garratts may have stolen defence "research" – are curiously symmetrical to Canada's complaint of Chinese hackers trying to access the NRC, Prof. Burton said. And as Christian café owners near North Korea's border, the Garratts would already expect to be watched by Chinese authorities, making them poor candidates to steal defence secrets.
For its part, China's embassy in Ottawa stayed mostly quiet – and suggested, obliquely, that speculation should be avoided. Last week, the embassy responded testily to Mr. Harper's statements, warning they could upset Canada-China relations. On Tuesday, embassy spokesman Yang Yundong issued a statement saying the couple were investigated by the State Security Bureau of Dandong, and are now being probed further. "We believe there is no need to over interpret this case," he said.
But this is a potentially politically explosive case in Canada. Countries often try to compartmentalize spy disputes, treating them as a fact of life that should not upset other relations.
But Prof. Burton believes China's security authorities may have underestimated the political sensitivities for Mr. Harper. Two committed Christians involved in aid work to North Korea will have a support constituency within Mr. Harper's cabinet and the Conservative Party base, he said.
Mr. Harper has been planning a trip to China, where he will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, but this case could derail his bilateral meetings with Chinese leaders, Prof. Burton said. "This will be the dominant story and will inhibit discussions in other areas."
All that comes at a delicate time, when Mr. Harper's government, divided between China hawks and doves, seems of two minds about China, Prof. Evans said. This case raises possible questions about spy-charge retaliations and religious-freedom issues for Christians in China. And because the Garratts were involved in sending help to people inside North Korea, it mixes in dealings with that repressive regime. "It's a trifecta of sensitivities," Prof. Evans said.