The dispute between Canada and China over detentions reignited following allegations of unintentional espionage.

A simmering dispute between countries has resurfaced due to China’s imprisonment of two Canadian individuals. One of the men has stated that he was detained for unintentionally sharing sensitive information with Canada and its allies.

According to The Globe and Mail, Michael Spavor is requesting a significant financial agreement from the Canadian government, claiming that he unknowingly gave intelligence about North Korea to his compatriot Michael Kovrig, who then shared it with Canada and its Five Eyes partners.

In 2018, two individuals were apprehended following the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada for potential trade sanction violations involving Iran. Chinese authorities alleged that Spavor, who resided near the North Korean border and organized cultural exchanges, was providing information to Kovrig. Kovrig had previously taken a leave from his diplomatic position at Canada’s embassy in Beijing from 2012 to 2014 to work at the International Crisis Group. The arrests of these two men, known as “the two Michaels”, were criticized by Canada and its allies as an act of “hostage diplomacy”.

In August of 2021, Spavor received an 11-year prison sentence for espionage. Kovrig’s trial took place in March and the verdict was never made public. In September of the same year, China released the two men after Meng Wanzhou made an agreement with US prosecutors and was set free, resolving a 1,000+ day standoff.

In response to Spavor’s statements during the weekend, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa restated its allegations that the men were “suspected of engaging in activities that pose a threat to China’s national security.”

The embassy stated on Sunday that recent reports further confirm the undeniable truth. Canada’s focus on China’s “arbitrary detention” is simply a case of pointing fingers and reveals their own double standards.

However, Spavor’s claims have resulted in complete denials from Canada and a variety of responses from specialists.

The global affairs department expressed to the Guardian that the imprisonment of the two individuals was deemed unfair and unjustifiable. Furthermore, their trials did not meet the basic requirements set by international law.

“Continuing to suggest that Michael was involved in espionage only reinforces a false story in which they were detained by China,” stated John Babcock, a representative for the ministry.

“After being released from unjust imprisonment, the Canadian government has continued to assist them in rebuilding their lives after enduring this challenging experience. Both individuals are now able to share their accounts of being arbitrarily detained in China. Due to privacy concerns, no additional details can be revealed.”

The focus of the accusations revolves around Kovrig’s involvement in Canada’s GSRP, a program that produces targeted diplomatic reports on security and stability matters in countries of importance to Canada. These reports are not classified and are shared within the foreign affairs ministry and with collaborating departments.

Kerry Buck, a former ambassador and assistant deputy minister for international security, stated on social media that Spavor’s accusations are absurd.

GSRP diplomats are responsible for composing diplomatic reports, which are then reviewed by individuals in Ottawa, including the CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service). While some of these reports may contain valuable information for the CSIS and other parties, labeling GSRP diplomats as “spies” is unfounded.

According to Stephanie Carvin, a Carleton University professor of international relations, although the Ministry of Global Affairs denies that Kovrig was acting as a spy, he was still gathering information. She believes Canada should consider how this could be perceived by other nations.

The way we discuss intelligence is evolving. There is much talk about open source intelligence. While it may not come from covert sources, it is still considered intelligence and should be treated as such.

However, she notes that at the moment of his apprehension, Kovrig was not employed by global affairs and was no longer submitting reports through the GSRP, which is one of the country’s lesser-known government departments.

“Carvin stated that China’s imprisonment of the Michaels was unjust and misguided. However, it also brings attention to the repercussions of Canada’s hesitation in deciding whether or not to have a foreign human intelligence organization.”

Canada may not have a desire for an MI6, but it does seek out information from individuals residing abroad regarding their host countries. This creates a state of uncertainty that poses a considerable risk for GSRP officers, such as Kovrig, and the individuals they engage with.