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Diplomats have to assume their words will be parsed for veiled meaning.

So it was perfectly fair for the opposition parties to wonder what Canada's ambassador to China, John McCallum, meant when he said on Jan. 21 that the two countries were converging with each other, and diverging from the United States under Donald Trump.

Here's the full quote: "In some important policy areas such as the environment, global warming, free trade [and] 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."

Why the furor? For starters, Mr. McCallum is only superficially right that we're in line with China on the environment and trade. Although Beijing, unlike the U.S., remains committed to the Paris climate accord, it can hardly be considered a model of environmental stewardship.

Nor are the Chinese principled free traders. They may not be vocal protectionists, à la Trump, but their reluctance to transition to a truly market-based economy testifies to the Politburo's preference for trade conducted on its own terms.

Mr. McCallum did not quite say we have more in common with China than the U.S. But he suggested we were trending in that direction. That was tone deaf, reckless and wrong.

Say what you will about the Trump presidency, his administration's policies do not represent the U.S., as such. Unlike in China, administrations change in America. Our southern neighbour has democratic elections, the rule of law and a separation of powers, all of which could end the Trump era prematurely – and none of which Beijing can claim.

That's what Mr. McCallum misses: Our bond with the U.S., unlike our relationship with China, is built on a shared foundation of liberal democracy.

Yes, America's temporary turn away from global leadership makes middle-power flirtation with China more likely. We should not be tempted. The U.S. is still by far our most important partner on the world stage.

It's a fact so obvious as to hardly need saying. Except that our man in China apparently needs to hear it.