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editorial

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unregulated id was on full display this week. On Sunday, he tweeted that Hurricane Dorian, which had ravaged the Bahamas, was heading for the United States and that "South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”

He made an error – Alabama was not in the storm’s path. No less an authority than the Alabama office of the U.S. National Weather Service immediately corrected the President’s tweet in order to calm the state’s populace.

So how did Mr. Trump respond? He took to Twitter to insist he was right and everyone else was wrong. On Wednesday, he even waved about a chart of Dorian’s progress that appeared to have been crudely doctored with a marker pen to show the hurricane’s northern tip crossing into Alabama. On Thursday, he was still tweeting away about it.

The man simply cannot be wrong. Imagine trying to work with him.

But if you think Mr. Trump is hard to deal with, then spare a thought for Dominic Barton, Canada’s new ambassador to China. He is about to try to engage with a regime that takes the practice of deflecting blame to a level that makes the American President seem downright self-aware.

“Relations between China and Canada have encountered serious difficulties, and the responsibility lies entirely with the Canadian side,” was the welcome message from a Beijing official when Mr. Barton’s posting was announced.

That’s the Beijing line – that its reluctant hand was forced when it arrested two Canadians in China on invented charges in December, and that it’s entirely Canada’s fault that it has held the two men in prison ever since.

Nothing dishonourable or illegal to see here, Beijing insists: The two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were arrested for national security reasons.

But that’s a lie. The truth is that they are victims of the wrath of the Chinese government, which is furious over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive who was picked up in a Vancouver Airport in December on an extradition request from the United States.

The two Canadians are political hostages – human emphasis points on Beijing’s demand this week that Canada “reflect on its mistakes” and immediately release Ms. Meng. Those “mistakes” have also led Beijing to block imports of Canadian agricultural products, a punishing blow that has forced Ottawa to provide compensation to affected farmers.

This is the China that Mr. Barton, who has long experience with Beijing and Chinese businesses, is returning to: a country led by a ruthless Communist Party that has opened its economy to international trade, but which now uses that trade – not to mention innocent human lives – as a weapon to punish smaller countries that don’t toe its line.

The timing of Mr. Barton’s appointment implies that he and his bosses in Ottawa believe they can walk a difficult path: One of pursuing continued engagement on trade while living up to the obligation to get Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig safely back to Canada.

That might well prove impossible.

Ottawa is facing a government that intends to play the aggrieved party. Beijing expects Canada to bow to pressure and release Ms. Meng.

Any demand from Canada that its citizens be released while Ms. Meng remains under house arrest in Vancouver will be ignored. Ottawa has few levers to force Beijing’s hand. We cannot easily wound with trade retaliation and moral suasion is wasted on the Communist Party of China.

So why this appointment now, seven months after Canada’s previous ambassador suddenly resigned?

Over all, it’s a positive signal. China and the regime that governs it aren’t going anywhere. Engagement is always better than estrangement, and Canada needs to engage with this growing superpower and its vast economy.

But it’s also a confusing signal. Why is Ottawa keen, in the middle of a historic freeze in relations caused by Beijing, to show openness to a capricious trading partner whose laws and courts only serve the Communist Party, and which is holding two of our citizens hostage in grim conditions?

Mr. Barton’s appointment shouldn’t make anyone confident that Ottawa will soon resolve its dispute with Beijing. In fact, it’s fair to wonder whether the better choice right now would have been to leave the post empty as a protest.

Then again, who can say? With a bully like Beijing, it’s hard to know which way the winds will blow.