China has said a former Canadian diplomat detained in Beijing works for an organisation that is not legally registered and he may have broken China's foreign non-governmental organisation (NGO) law.
Mr Michael Kovrig, a senior adviser with Brussels-based NGO International Crisis Group (ICG), was arrested on Monday night.
But yesterday, the state-run Beijing News reported, quoting sources, that Mr Kovrig is being investigated by the Beijing State Security Bureau on suspicion of engaging in activities that could harm China's national security.
Mr Kovrig's detention comes days after Chinese telecoms giant Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver at the request of the United States, which has accused her of violating US sanctions against Iran. Shortly after her arrest, China summoned the Canadian ambassador to demand that she be released, warning of "grave consequences".
When asked if Mr Kovrig's arrest was a retaliatory move, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said yesterday: "If there is indeed such a case, please rest assured the Chinese authorities will certainly handle it according to the law."
He maintained China has "no information to provide" on the case.
He said that as far as he was aware, the ICG was not legally registered in China, and if Mr Kovrig was carrying out "relevant activities" for the ICG within Chinese borders, then he would have broken the law.
Mr Lu said at a regular news briefing that China has an "open policy" and that foreign organisations as well as foreigners should not be worried as long as they comply with Chinese laws and regulations.
The ICG yesterday said it has received no information from Chinese officials about the detention and that it was seeking consular access to Mr Kovrig.
In Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was aware of the situation and that consular assistance was being provided to Mr Kovrig's family.
Before joining the ICG early last year, Mr Kovrig worked at the Canadian diplomatic missions in Hong Kong and Beijing.
ICG president and chief executive Robert Malley told The New York Times that he was sure Mr Kovrig did not "engage in illegal activities".
"He was not endangering Chinese national security. He was doing what all (ICG) analysts do - objective and impartial research and policy recommendations to end deadly conflict," Mr Malley said.
According to Mr Kovrig's LinkedIn profile, his work with the ICG involves research related to China, Japan, the Korean peninsula and South-east Asia. It says he aims to help "reduce tensions and promote the peaceful resolution of disputes" by "constructive engagement with all parties".
Several former Canadian ambassadors to China said they believed Mr Kovrig's case was linked to the arrest of Ms Meng. She is accused of being personally involved in tricking banks into violating US sanctions. She has been granted bail of C$10 million (S$10.3 million) and could face charges if extradited to the US.
Mr Thomas Kellogg, executive director of the Centre for Asian Law at Georgetown Law School in Washington and an expert on Chinese law, said "it's highly likely Michael Kovrig was detained in order to send a message to the Canadian government".
"Beijing is signalling that it is watching Canada's actions in the Meng case very closely," he said.
While it is hard to speculate what could happen next, Mr Kellogg said Beijing could release Mr Kovrig, having made its point about Canada's vulnerability to retaliation.