The Trudeau government has hit the restart button on the cabinet team that deals with China through its appointment of former businessman François-Philippe Champagne as Foreign Affairs Minister and former PMO aide Mary Ng as Minister of International Trade.
Mr. Champagne, 49, who liked to refer to himself as the “chief marketing officer” for Canada in a previous cabinet post at International Trade, takes the helm at the Department of Global Affairs while Canada-China relations are in a deep freeze.
Mr. Champagne, a protégé of former prime minister Jean Chrétien and an international lawyer who has spent years working for major companies in Europe, takes over after a year of turbulence in relations with China under his predecessor, Chrystia Freeland.
Ms. Freeland was drawn into conflict with China nearly 12 months ago, when Beijing locked up two Canadians in apparent retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest in December, 2018, of a prominent Chinese tech executive to comply with a U.S. extradition request.
Last August, Chinese authorities singled out Ms. Freeland by name in an unusually personal rebuke over her comments about Hong Kong. She had issued a joint statement in which she and the European Union’s foreign policy chief spoke against “unacceptable violent incidents” in Hong Kong.
By the end of her tenure, University of British Columbia political scientist Yves Tiberghien says, “Freeland was not welcomed by China because some of the things that were said were so confrontational on both sides so that relationship was sort of difficult.
“So what you get with Champagne is a new start, a fresh start.”
Asked on Wednesday about how he will proceed, Mr. Champagne said he plans to speak to China’s foreign affairs minister during a Group of 20 meeting in Japan this week.
“I am going to raise the issue of the two detainees in China, [who] have been arbitrarily detained ... we have been raising this issue at every single opportunity as the Canadian government, and certainly I will continue to do so."
Prof. Tiberghien, who is also director emeritus of the Institute of Asian Research at UBC, said it seemed to him that Ms. Freeland “did carry very strong views that she developed as a journalist” and that major speeches appeared to reflect her thinking, rather being a product of her ministry.
Of Mr. Champagne, he said, “I don’t think he brings a strong position either way on China.”
He predicted the new foreign affairs minister will listen and consult and develop his own approach, while still being part of the team. “His positions will reflect what the median [position is] in the PMO and the cabinet.”
In a 2017 interview with China’s state-backed China Global Television Network, Mr. Champagne praised China for its stability, and adherence to rules-based order.
“In a world of uncertainty, of unpredictability, of questioning about the rules that have been established to govern our trading relationship, Canada, and I would say China, stand out as [a] beacon of stability, predictability, a rule-based system, a very inclusive society," he told the Chinese network.
Those comments were more than a year before Canada-China relations began to deteriorate.
A delegation of former Canadian public officials recently wrapped up a trip to China to discuss with current and former Chinese officials the future of bilateral relations with Beijing. The team included former Conservative foreign affairs minister John Baird, former Canadian ambassador to China Robert Wright, former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock, and Len Edwards, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs. This meeting was part of what’s called Track II, or back-channel diplomacy between countries.
Prof. Tiberghien, who went with the delegation to China, said the mood on the Chinese side has changed. He said the message was that China doesn’t want the dispute to worsen and “they want to rebuild on our older [shared] history." He said it appears that “China is in the mood where they have enough of a fight with the U.S. [right now] and they are in the process of improving relations with everyone else.”
Ms. Ng, 50, has made repeated trips to China in recent years as the federal minister responsible for small business, a portfolio she retains.
Her enthusiasm for promoting Canada-China ties got her into trouble this past summer. Opposition critics accused her of being tone deaf during a visit to China in July for tweeting photos of herself smiling and eating ice cream at a Canadian-owned company in Beijing even as Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor remained in prison.
She also faced questions for appointing former provincial cabinet minister Michael Chan as co-chair of her 2019 election campaign. Mr. Chan last summer denounced acts of violence during pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as the work of foreign actors intent on undermining the state of China. His assertions echo statements by Chinese officials.
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