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.