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The remarks by ambassador to China Dominic Barton, seen here at the House of Commons on Feb. 5, 2020, represent a bluntly worded departure from the diplomatic tone that the Canadian government has adopted toward China.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending his ambassador to China after Dominic Barton, in notably frank terms, said Beijing’s heavy-handed diplomacy is alienating foreign countries and injuring its goodwill abroad.

Mr. Barton’s remarks, to a private session of the Canadian International Council last week, represent a bluntly worded departure from the diplomatic tone that the Canadian government has adopted toward China, as it seeks masks from Chinese manufacturers and pushes for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Asked Wednesday whether he agreed with Mr. Barton, whom he appointed last year to mend relations with China, Mr. Trudeau told reporters that raising questions about China’s conduct is acceptable.

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“I think it’s totally normal that we be asking questions about how different countries are behaving, including China,” the Prime Minister said.

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On the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Trudeau said that several countries, particularly China, where the first outbreak came to light, are going to have to explain themselves.

“From the start, we have known that there are going to be difficult questions for several countries, including China, about the origins and the start of this pandemic, how it got to a global level,” he said.

China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy has generated criticism in Western countries. This started back in 2018 when Beijing locked up Mr. Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Mr. Spavor, an entrepreneur, in what was widely viewed as retaliation for Ottawa’s extradition arrest of Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

More recently it’s included Beijing threatening a trade embargo in response to Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the onset of COVID-19, as well as Chinese diplomats aggressively pressing European countries to express public gratitude for gifts of masks.

Mr. Barton last week said China’s conduct is damaging its global “soft power,” undermining its international influence and ability to persuade other countries to see things Beijing’s way. As Mr. Barton put it, China is accumulating “negative” soft power right now.

Unlike other foreign leaders, such as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Mr. Trudeau has so far resisted explicit calls for an independent inquiry into the origin and spread of COVID-19. His International Development Minister has called for an after-action review of the World Health Organization’s performance in the pandemic but that language refers to a standard WHO practice after emergencies.

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The Prime Minister was asked why he has been so careful when talking about China and if it was because Canada is worried about reprisals that might affect its ability to procure medical gear from Chinese suppliers.

Mr. Trudeau said his primary responsibility now is the safety of Canadians. “And in this pandemic, we have to work with everyone to get the necessary protective equipment, to get the partnerships necessary to get through.”

Australia’s Mr. Morrison has called for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and Britain’s Foreign Minister Dominic Raab has said China will have to answer hard questions on how the outbreak happened and whether it could have been prevented – warning it will not be “business as usual” with China.

A global souring of relations between China and Western democracies has taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All the while, concern in the West persists that China’s initial response to COVID-19 allowed the virus to spread. A report by Der Spiegel magazine last Friday cited Germany’s BND spy agency as saying that China’s initial attempt to hold back information had cost the world four to six weeks that could have been used to fight the virus.

A new survey by the non-profit Angus Reid Institute found that the number of Canadians saying they have a favourable opinion of China has dropped to 14 per cent from 29 per cent six months ago. It also found that 85 per cent of respondents disagreed with the proposition that ““the Chinese government has been transparent and honest about the COVID-19 situation in that country.”

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The Angus Reid online survey of 1,518 people was conducted May 4 to 6.

Wenran Jiang, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, said he personally agrees with Mr. Barton that Chinese diplomats should be conducting themselves in a more measured manner.

But he said the younger diplomats in China’s foreign-policy service, some of those the media calls the “wolf warriors,” would not agree that “China needs to be soft and persuasive and low key” in order to achieve what Beijing wants around the world. They believe a show of strength is more effective.

They would argue that China as an ascendant power is still more benign than the United States was a century or so ago when it was a rising force on the world stage, Prof. Jiang said.

“They want to be perceived like the Americans: ‘If you do things to harm our core interests, we will hit back.’ ”

With a report from Reuters

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