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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum on Jan. 25, 2018, in Davos, Switzerland.

Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending his envoy to Beijing who says Canada now has more in common with China's authoritarian regime than with the United States under President Donald Trump.

Former Liberal cabinet minister John McCallum, whom Mr. Trudeau named as ambassador last year to pursue a free-trade deal with Beijing, said this week in China that the election of Mr. Trump has been a game-changer for Canada.

"In some important policy areas such as the environment, global warming, free trade, globalization, the policies of the government of Canada are closer to the policies of the government of China than they are to U.S. policies," Mr. McCallum said Sunday during a visit by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard.

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Mr. McCallum said he never imagined it would be possible for Canada and China to be so closely aligned – a development he attributed to Mr. Trump's policies, which include protectionist measures and an anti-climate change stance. "I believe that because of this political situation with Donald Trump, the Chinese are now more interested than before to do things with us" in Canada, he said.

The envoy said the divergence between the United States and China is a boon for Canada. "In a sense, it's a good thing for me as an ambassador and for Canada with China because, because of these big differences, it gives us opportunities in China. There is no doubt that Canada wants to do more with China, which is what the Prime Minister told me when he asked me to come here."

At a wrap-up news conference Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr. Trudeau was asked if he agreed with his ambassador's outlook. He didn't disavow Mr. McCallum's comments but said his government's approach to foreign affairs is to look for common ground with countries, including China.

China's one-party state has come under significant criticism for its brutal human-rights record as well as its aggression in the South China Sea. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, China has, over the last decade, "effectively seized over 80 per cent of the South China Sea, an area about the size of Western Europe" and built 12 "militarily significant facilities" in the region, including three major fighter bases.

Conservative foreign-affairs critic Erin O'Toole called the Canadian ambassador's comments rash, saying they risk straining relations with the U.S. government during a difficult renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement. "To suggest we have more in common with China than the United States at a time when we are trying to remind the U.S. of the special relationship is reckless," Mr. O'Toole said.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen described Mr. McCallum's comments as facile, saying the average Canadian might be taken aback to hear a government representative saying this country is more in line with "Communist China than our American cousins."

The political direction and policies across 50 American states are far closer to Canada's than China's, he argued. "We can't go from best buds because Obama is in office to the U.S. is worse than China because Trump takes over. ... America is a lot more than Donald Trump," Mr. Cullen said.

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Mr. Trudeau said his government wants to work with China on areas where he feels the Chinese are acting as leaders. "On issues like the environment, on issues around trade, we are always looking to work with significant countries, like China that are showing initiative and leadership on that, but it doesn't mean we are going to agree with them on everything. Far from it," Mr. Trudeau said.

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