There is a new and disturbing vogue in foreign relations these days — the taking of hostages by governments to create leverage in international negotiations. Individuals are being detained in transparent attempts to create bargaining chips. While not unprecedented, the recent spate of such incidents looks like a new normal in international diplomacy. While no government can or should ignore the arrest of its citizens, it must be careful that attempts to protect them do not, perversely, reinforce the incentive to take more hostages. All governments must speak out against such behavior. Silent diplomacy is not the correct approach in this case.
The most conspicuous case of hostage diplomacy is China’s detention of two Canadian citizens following the arrest by Canada of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, in response to an extradition request from the United States. Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat employed by a nongovernment organization while on sabbatical, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur working on cultural exchanges with North Korea, were arrested days after Meng was stopped while changing planes in Vancouver. China has made no effort to hide its intentions: In an opinion article, its Canadian ambassador argued that the arrests were acts of “self defense” in the aftermath of the Meng arrest.
Beijing then announced that a third Canadian citizen, Robert Schellenberg, would be retried on charges of drug smuggling. Despite having already been convicted of that crime and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, the provincial high court, in what experts consider an unprecedented ruling, called for a new trial, which was held with remarkable speed and at which he was given the death penalty.
China is not alone in taking hostages. In December, Russia filed espionage charges against a former U.S. marine. All publicly available evidence indicates that the man is no spy; most observers believe he has been detained to give Moscow leverage to demand the release of Maria Butina, a Russian held in the U.S. who pled guilty last year to acting as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of the Russian government, ostensibly to influence the 2016 election. Iran has revealed that is it holding a U.S. citizen for unspecified reasons; Tehran has at least five Americans in detention.
Turkey has arrested several individuals, including Andrew Brunson, an American pastor that it held for two years, in an effort to get Washington’s attention. Ankara was reportedly hoping to swap Brunson for Fethullah Gullen, a Turkish cleric who lives in exile in the U.S. and who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes is fomenting revolt against him. North Korea has an alarming habit of grabbing U.S. citizens and holding them to force Washington to engage with it as well.
Sadly, hostage diplomacy appears to be effective. A core function of government is safeguarding its citizens. Taking them hostage — even if by ostensibly legal means — guarantees that the target government will engage to protect them. For leaders who thrive on theater, there are few better ways to secure public support and acclaim than to win their release. Heads of state frequently meet released prisoners to demonstrate their efforts on the detainees’ behalf. Ironically, that attention also validates the tactic of taking hostages in the first place.
Ultimately, hostage taking is self-defeating, however. A government’s efforts to propagate a benign or positive image in the world are shattered when it seizes innocent individuals to advance unrelated foreign policy objectives. Foreign investors will be difficult to court if they fear that they could at any moment and without warning become pawns in larger geopolitical games.
It is not enough, however, to let that logic work its way through the thinking of hostage-taking governments. Some governments are impervious to that reasoning, preferring to believe that they are invariably right or that national pride or the national interest should prevail over such things as comity, the rule of law or respect for individual rights and dignity.
Japan must denounce this new proclivity in foreign policy. Keeping silent is no virtue. China has not seized a Japanese citizen to advance a specific agenda, but it has arrested Japanese and charged them with espionage in questionable circumstances. In addition, Beijing has used unconventional means — sanctioned public protests that sometimes turned violent — after Tokyo took an action that offended Beijing.
Japan, like other governments, should vociferously object to hostage taking because it undermines such fundamental values and interests as the rule of law and human rights. Lines must be drawn about acceptable practices in diplomacy. Japan is wrong to think that it would be immune to such pressures or practices. It is only a matter of time if hostage taking becomes the new normal in 21st century diplomacy.