A man holds a sign calling for China to release Wang Bingzhang and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, who was detained in China. Picture: REUTERS/LINDSEY WASSON
A man holds a sign calling for China to release Wang Bingzhang and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, who was detained in China. Picture: REUTERS/LINDSEY WASSON

Washington — Prominent leaders of American think-tanks and leading academics on Monday called on Beijing to immediately release a former Canadian diplomat, warning his arrest has a chilling effect on co-operation with China.

Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and fellow Canadian businessman Michael Spavor were arrested in China on December 10 in a move widely seen as retaliation for Canada's arrest days before of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on behalf of the US.

Canada, the US and several other countries, have criticised Beijing's handling of the cases and repeatedly called for the release of the two Canadians.

"Michael's arrest has a chilling effect on all those who are committed to advance constructive US-China relations," said the joint statement from US foreign policy experts, academics and thought leaders.

"We urge China to release Michael so that he can return to his family," the 15 signatories said.

His detention has thrown Canada into the middle of a geopolitical spat between Washington and Beijing, with the Trump administration accusing China of stealing US technology and slapping tariffs on roughly half of the Chinese goods flowing into the country.

"At this moment of testing for the bilateral relationship —defined by growing differences and suspicions between our governments — we believe these efforts and the partnerships we've built with counterparts in China over many years are more important than ever," the statement said.

Signatories include Orville Schell of the Asia Society, and the heads of right- and left-leaning think-tanks such as the Hudson Institute and the Centre for American Progress.

Based in Hong Kong, Kovrig had taken leave from his diplomatic posting to work for the International Crisis Group when he was arrested.

International Crisis Group president Robert Malley thanked the signatories for their support and coming together on the issue.

"Many members of that community wish to constructively engage with China," said Malley. "Michael's arbitrary detention can only scare them away," he said.

China appears to have linked Kovrig's fate with that of tech executive Meng, who is wanted in the US on fraud charges linked to violations of Iran sanctions.

Last week, days after Canada launched an extradition process against Meng, China announced it suspected Kovrig of spying and stealing state secrets and alleged fellow Canadian Spavor had provided him intelligence.

Spying charges could expose them to tough prison sentences. Both men have been denied access to lawyers and allowed only monthly consular visits. Meng is on bail in Vancouver as the extradition process continues.

AFP