Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Why 'Hostage Diplomacy' Works

| Feb. 17, 2021

From China to Iran to the United States, arbitrary detention is an immoral—and often effective—pressure tactic.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech on Monday in which he denounced the practice of arbitrary detention, calling it "completely unacceptable." He's correct, but what's especially puzzling about this practice is that states sometimes use it even when it is contrary to their stated aims and damaging to their overall interests.

China offers an apt illustration. A paramount goal of Chinese statecraft has been to convince the rest of the world that its rise to greater global influence is a benign development, and to portray the country as a responsible power with (nearly) everyone's best interest at heart. As I discussed a few weeks ago, this "win-win" theme pervaded Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent address to the World Economic Forum, and he reportedly emphasized the need for Sino-American cooperation during his first phone conversation with new U.S. President Joe Biden. It is overwhelmingly in China's interest not to come off as an angry, impulsive, belligerent, inhumane, revisionist power (which is why its adoption of so-called wolf warrior diplomacy is equally ill-advised), to avoid giving critics ammunition and to make it less likely that other countries will join forces to limit its influence.

Yet even as it tries to display a benign face toward the rest of the world, China has been aggressively targeting foreign nationals and dual citizens, typically on charges of espionage or violating various national security laws. In recent years it has detained two Canadians (Michael Kovrig of the International Crisis Group and Michael Spavor, director of a cultural exchange program in North Korea), a Chinese Australian news anchor (Cheng Lei), a Japanese history professor (Nobu Iwatani), a Chinese American businessman (Kai Li), and an American businesswoman of Chinese ancestry (Phan "Sandy" Phan-Gillis), among others. Some of those detained were subsequently released; other remain in custody, in some cases still awaiting trial in China's opaque justice system.

Iran presents an even more puzzling picture. Under President Hassan Rouhani, Iran has been trying to get out of the penalty box in which it has been placed by the United States and its regional adversaries. Despite an obvious interest in normalizing relations with the rest of the world, Iran has continued to detain foreigners and dual citizens on dubious charges, often leaving them in prison or legal limbo for years. Prominent examples include Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, (an Iranian British employee of the Thomson Reuters Foundation who was detained in 2016 while visiting her parents and accused of "attempting to topple the Iranian regime"), Kavous Seyed-Emami (an Iranian Canadian professor who helped found the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation and supposedly died by suicide while in custody), and Xiyue Wang, a Chinese American graduate student who was arrested in 2016 while doing primary source research for a dissertation on the Qajar dynasty, given a 10-year sentence for "espionage," and released in 2019 in a prisoner swap for Masoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist under indictment in the United States for trying to export unauthorized goods to Iran....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Why 'Hostage Diplomacy' Works.” Foreign Policy, February 17, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt