China confirmed it has formally arrested two Canadians detained since December, in cases that have further strained tensions between the countries.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig is "suspected of collecting state secrets and intelligence", while businessman Michael Spavor is suspected of "stealing and illegally offering state secrets" overseas, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang (陸慷) told a regular briefing.
"According to Chinese prosecutors' approval, Michael Kovrig, due to being suspected of crimes of gathering state secrets and intelligence for foreign (forces), and Michael Spavor, for being suspected of crimes of stealing and illegally providing state secrets for foreign (forces), have in recent days been approved for arrest according to law", Mr Lu said. "The actions we have taken are entirely law-based". "We hope Canada will not interfere with, or comment casually on, other countries' lawful practices".
Lu said the two were arrested "recently", but did not provide a date, and added that he had no information about where they were being held.
"China will take all the necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights of Chinese firms".
Though no link has been officially made, the detention of Spavor and Kovrig is thought to be in retaliation for Canada's December 1 detention on a USA extradition request of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive of Chinese telecom giant Huawei who is accused of violating Iran sanctions.
Both Canadians have a long history of working in China.
China had earlier accused the two of conspiring together to steal Chinese state secrets.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Thursday the government is "deeply concerned" about China's latest move. "We reiterate our demand that China immediately release Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor", Canada's foreign ministry said. He said no evidence has been produced to indicate any validity to allegations made against them.
Canada criticized China for denying Spavor and Kovrig access to their families or lawyers, while a large number of foreign former diplomats, scholars, and analysts called on Beijing to release the pair. He is a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, which researches peaceful solutions to global conflicts.
"Michael has been unjustly detained and has now been unjustly arrested", the group said in a written statement. "His work was completely transparent and out in the open for all to see, including for Chinese officials". The two have been allowed short consular visits once a month, during which they are not allowed to discuss the cases against them with Canadian diplomats.
"Assuming the United States export ban on Huawei remains unresolved for the next 12-24 months, we highly doubt if China would stick to its timetable of building 5G aggressively", it wrote.
"Canada strongly condemns their arbitrary arrest as we condemned their arbitrary detention on December 10", the Canadian foreign ministry said in a statement to the newspaper.