SYDNEY - Australia has issued a statement raising concerns about China's detention of two Canadian citizens after foreign policy experts questioned why Canberra had been silent.
The arrests of entrepreneur Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, a former former diplomat, earlier this month came after Canada detained a Huawei executive in Vancouver at the request of the United States.
There was swift condemnation of the arrest of two Canadians by the European Union, Britain, Germany and France. They were concerned about the apparent political motivation of their detention. China accused Spavor and Kovrig of endangering state security.
Despite the international outcry, Australia — another of Canada's key western allies — stayed silent. There was no official explanation, but a group of 30 academics and former diplomats signed a petition urging Canberra to call for the pair to be freed.
Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, says Australia must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada.
"If middle-sized democracies do not stand together against offensive behavior by China on the international stage, then one-by-one we will be subjected to similar punishment or bullying on those occasions when our interests clash with China's," Medcalf said.
In response, Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne issued a brief statement, which does not back Canada's call for the two men to be immediately released.
"The Australian government is concerned about the recent detention of two Canadian citizens in China," Payne said. "We would be very concerned if these cases were related to legal proceedings currently under way in Canada involving a Chinese citizen, Ms Meng Wanzhou."
China is Australia's biggest trading partner. But relations have soured in recent times over allegations that Beijing has meddled in Australia's domestic politics, while Canberra has been accused by China of cyber espionage.
Earlier this month, Australia said its companies were among the global victims of an extensive campaign of cyber espionage attacks backed by the Chinese government.
Canberra said cybercrime had "the potential to undermine global economic growth, national security and international stability."