Arresting Huawei exec is a case of spectacularly bad timing

Imagine for a moment that Ivanka Trump steps off a plane at Chek Lap Kok Airport and is set upon by Hong Kon...

Posted: Dec 7, 2018 10:00 AM
Updated: Dec 7, 2018 10:00 AM

Imagine for a moment that Ivanka Trump steps off a plane at Chek Lap Kok Airport and is set upon by Hong Kong security agents, imprisoned, then held for six days before her bail hearing because neighboring China wants to extradite her for interrogation about trade with, say, for example, Taiwan. And this happens on the very day Chinese President Xi Jinping is settling down, an ocean away, for an amicable dinner with his good friend Donald Trump to arrange a cease-fire in a desperate trade war.

That is not all that far from the scenario we see playing out now in Canada. The stunningly ill-timed arrest of Meng Wanzhou came at about the moment of Xi's dinner in Buenos Aires with Donald Trump. Meng is chief financial officer and treasured daughter of Ren Zhengfei, founder of Chinese electronics giant Huawei, and her arrest has at least six levels of such bad attached.

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Ren is one of the tight circle of President Xi's personal technology brain trust, alongside Alibaba founder Jack Ma. China's immediate reaction to Meng's seizure was swift and definite—she must be released, plain and simple. She has done nothing wrong, in their view.

While Canada has still withheld most details of her seizure, Huawei has said she faces charges in New York by US Justice Department officials. And the Wall Street Journal has reported that DOJ was investigating the company over possible violation of sanctions against trading with Iran.

Now mind you, China is a signatory, along with every other member of the U.N. Security Council, of the nuclear pact that restricts Iran's development of a nuclear weapon in return for normalizing trade and economic relations with the other signers of the agreement. And China, as do all its fellow signatories, except the US, remains deeply committed to the pact. Of course, Donald Trump pulled the United States out of it, then demanded every other country respect the new sanctions it snapped back into place.

But the multiple levels of bad in this whole Meng affair can hardly be exaggerated—not to mention the questions that someone needs desperately to answer.

Let's start with Donald Trump himself. Did he know that Ms. Meng was on the cusp of being taken into custody? Did he know it might even happen sometime between the preprandial cocktails and dessert he was sharing with President Xi? If he did not know this, might someone, like, for instance, his personal choice for acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, not have at least dropped a little hint before or after he was whispering the latest news of the Mueller probe into his ear? (US National Security Adviser John Bolton said in an NPR interview Thursday that he knew of the arrest in advance but did not say whether the President did.)

Then there is the whole question of priorities. What exactly is more important for President Trump? Is it bringing to an end what promises to be a debilitating trade war with China that is already crushing American, Chinese and world stock markets, threatening the livelihood of millions of American farmers, factory workers and imperiling just about anyone owning a 401(k) retirement plan? And then of course there is the question whether an all-out trade war might indeed tip the United States into a recession? Economic hardship also happened, for different reasons, at the end of the term of the last Republican president. It was left to Trump's Democratic nemesis, Barack Obama, to dig the nation out of that crisis.

To be sure, the United States does have some legitimate concerns with respect to Huawei. It has long been among leading Chinese companies suspected of intellectual property theft. The company's equipment has also been rejected for use on the ground that it could be used for surveillance. But this immediate case apparently deals with Iran, and the timing of Ms. Meng's seizure is, at a minimum, most inopportune. A Huawei spokesperson said, "Huawei complies with all applicable laws and regulations where it operates, including applicable export control and sanction laws and regulations of the U.N., US and EU."

In the end, a central question is whether Donald Trump's really top priority is to ensure that Obama's signature foreign policy accomplishment, the Iran trade deal, is permanently scuttled—proving Obama wrong and Trump right? At the same time, that would cement Trump's close relationship with Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia who is equally determined to destroy his archenemy Iran—as determined as he apparently was, if the CIA's assessment is to be believed, to do away with his homegrown foe Jamal Khashoggi.

Of course, this eagerness to take on Iran as a sworn enemy at all costs could have the consequence, which Trump has casually dismissed, of allowing Iran to go full-tilt into development of the nuclear weapon that much of the world, China included, has been desperate to prevent.

The one player we have not yet heard from so far in this case is Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. For that raises the last set of extraordinary questions in this case with as many levels as Russian matryoshka nesting dolls, each fitted carefully inside the other.

Why did Trudeau's government become a facilitator, even enabler, of a Donald Trump he clearly cannot abide? Certainly, he'd like to remain on America's good side, at least until the USMCA, or NAFTA-2 trade pact, is finally ratified. Or perhaps Canada's government recognizes just how deep into Dante's circles of hell Trump is plunging himself by seizing Ms. Meng and Trudeau can't wait to see how all this plays out—leaving Trump even more desperately wounded and unlikely to win re-election or even reach the end of his first term of office.

But what would be worth knowing, and quickly, is whether Donald Trump might even be intentionally sabotaging the trade pact with China, at least for the moment. He might even like to see a long-ish postponement, say until the summer or early fall of 2020 when he can then rise to the level of national savior just before his second coronation.

Or it might simply be something as simple as one hand in this chaotic administration having no idea, or only guessing at, what the other is doing at any given moment. Perhaps that is the most disturbing answer of all.

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