A former ambassador to China says that Ottawa's diplomacy with Beijing has been naive and pliant.
David Mulroney writes in a coming book that former foreign minister John Baird and his staff cultivated an unusually direct relationship with then-Chinese Ambassador Zhang Junsai, investing "oracular status" in the official, regularly visiting the embassy to seek his views and travelling with the ambassador while on foreign visits to China.
In an interview, Mr. Mulroney said that Mr. Baird would eagerly share the rationale behind Canada's positions with the Chinese ambassador without getting any information in return. That would leave Ottawa in a vulnerable spot during negotiations on issues such as trade, global security and human rights.
"The Chinese ambassador [was] a very capable diplomat who's hard to read, even at the best of times," said Mr. Mulroney, who served three years as ambassador in China until 2012 and is now a senior fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. "Sometimes when you're new to the game, your tendency is to put all of your information out there in a very naive way and hope this will be reciprocated by the Chinese, which it never is."
Mr. Mulroney's comments come a little more than a week after another frisson of diplomatic intrigue with the Middle Kingdom. In late February, federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau held a lunch in honour of Mr. Zhang's successor, Luo Zhaohui, but the ambassador cancelled, citing scheduling conflicts. There was speculation that Mr. Luo did not show up because he did not want to appear partisan in the runup to an election.
Both Conservatives and Liberals are trying to court favour with the economic powerhouse and authoritarian regime, which presents a delicate diplomatic challenge.
China is this country's second-largest trading partner and the ancestral homeland to hundreds of thousands of Canadians. Yet it is also an adversary with whom officials lock horns on espionage allegations, support for rogue regimes, internal suppression and a troubling trade imbalance.
Last November, The Globe and Mail revealed that the Prime Minister's delegation to China included Simon Zhong, the Ontario co-chair of the National Congress of Chinese-Canadians, a controversial pro-Beijing group that leans Liberal. While some believed that bringing Mr. Zhong on board the publicly funded trip was a coup for the Conservatives and would give the group additional standing in Beijing, others saw it as bald pandering.
In his coming book, Middle Power, Middle Kingdom, Mr. Mulroney takes issue with the federal government's cultivation of the ambassador and his close working rapport with political staffers in the foreign affairs department. Offering a unique window into diplomacy in the Stephen Harper era, Mr. Mulroney said that Mr. Baird would follow up directly with Mr. Zhang at the end of high-level meetings, rendering department officials redundant. "It was as if it was more damning to be suspected of having liberal sympathies than it was to actually be a Communist," he writes.
Mr. Zhang, Mr. Mulroney added, also accompanied Mr. Baird on his trips to China, which he noted was unusual.
(When canvassed by The Globe and Mail, two former diplomats agreed with Mr. Mulroney's observation, while two others said it was typical for ambassadors to fly home for high-level meetings with their host county's foreign ministers.)
When Mr. Zhang left his post last May, Mr. Baird held a farewell luncheon for him. Mr. Baird, who could not be reached for comment, stepped down from his minister's post last month.
In a written response to questions about its approach to China, the foreign affairs department pointed out that Canada regularly raises human-rights issues while continuing to bolster trade. Foreign direct investment between the two countries increased nearly eightfold between 2005 and 2013, to a total of $21.6-billion.
Charles Burton, a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing and Brock University professor, said that the revelations about Mr. Baird's rapport with the Chinese embassy didn't surprise him. "When Mr. Baird retired as minister, the ambassador threw him a farewell luncheon at which the guzheng was played," said Mr. Burton, referring to a traditional Chinese instrument, a plucked zither. "That is not normal practice for someone retiring as foreign minister."