China is expected to name as its next ambassador to Canada a senior Foreign Ministry official who was Beijing’s point man on North American policy, according to news reports.
Cong Peiwu served until recently as director-general of the Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs, which is responsible not only for the United States and Canada but also countries including Australia and New Zealand.
Hong Kong-based Sing Tao Daily’s East Weekly magazine recently reported that Mr. Cong has been tapped as the next envoy to Canada.
The Chinese embassy in Ottawa would not comment on Tuesday about Mr. Cong. “We have no information to offer at the moment. We will keep you updated,” the embassy said in an e-mailed statement.
One Chinese government official told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday that diplomats in Beijing had heard Mr. Cong will be the next ambassador to Canada but cautioned the information was unofficial and unconfirmed. This official was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Canadian government records show Mr. Cong was posted to the Chinese embassy in Canada in the early 2000s. He is listed as a first secretary in a 2002 directory of foreign representatives in Canada.
Mr. Cong has also served as a senior diplomat – a minister counsellor – at China’s embassy in Britain.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said it makes sense for China to select a diplomat with knowledge of Canada.
“Very often in the past, people coming as ambassador to Canada have worked at some point in the North American and Oceanian Affairs Department,” he said.
Mr. Saint-Jacques said he met Mr. Cong during his tenure in Beijing from 2012 to 2016. He described Mr. Cong as someone who will echo the Chinese government’s party line.
“When it is time for him to deliver tough messages, he will do that. He is typical of many Chinese diplomats who can be doctrinaire at times and not necessarily ready to listen to your side of the argument,” he said.
Relations between Canada and China have deteriorated over the past eight months after Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecom giant Huawei, on an extradition request from the United States. The United States alleges she helped the flagship Chinese company violate U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.
Days after Ms. Meng was detained, Beijing seized former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, actions that critics have called “hostage diplomacy.”
Since December, China has inflicted increasing economic pain on Canada. Beijing blocked pork and beef exports from Canada, purchases of soybeans have stopped and buyers for Canada’s canola seed have disappeared.
Still, Mr. Saint-Jacques said it is a positive move that Beijing has decided to name an ambassador and “In my view this should facilitate our own process of nominating someone soon," especially after the meeting last week between Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
“There is a process that is starting to have more regular exchanges and for that purpose it would be useful to have full-fledged ambassadors in both Ottawa and Beijing,” Mr. Saint-Jacques said.
China’s previous ambassador Lu Shaye, who was known for his undiplomatically blunt talk during his tenure in Canada, left Ottawa this summer to be promoted as China’s envoy to France.
Canada has been without an ambassador in China since January when former Liberal cabinet minister John McCallum was fired after he told a gathering of Chinese-language journalists in Toronto that he thought Ms. Meng had a strong case to fight extradition to the United States and listed several arguments he thought could help her win in the courts.
A senior Canadian government official, to whom The Globe granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about this matter, said no decision had been made on appointing a new Canadian ambassador to Beijing.
At a news conference in Toronto Tuesday with British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab, Ms. Freeland described the meeting with Mr. Wang as “positive” and said they committed to “keeping the lines of communication open.”
Canadian officials in China said they conducted another consular visit with both of the arrested men. They met with Mr. Spavor on Tuesday and visited Mr. Kovrig on Monday.
In the meantime, Mr. Cong has already been replaced as director-general of the North American and Oceanian Affairs Department by Lu Kang, a diplomat who previously served as a Foreign Ministry spokesman.