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Politics Ottawa’s man in China: Who was McCallum and what was his strategy?

John McCallum, Canada's ambassador to China, arrives at a fundraising event at a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, on Jan. 25, 2018.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

Editor’s note: John McCallum was fired on Saturday. For the full story, click here.

Canada’s envoy to China is an ambassador like no other.

As a former Liberal cabinet minister rather than a career diplomat, John McCallum has unrivalled access to top decision-makers in the capital, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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Along with Canadian Ambassador to Washington David MacNaughton, another political appointee, Mr. McCallum can phone the Prime Minister without having to go through Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. In many ways, it is as if Mr. McCallum never left cabinet. He is by all accounts the Trudeau minister for Canada-China relations.

“I have been surprised by the extent to which the government has allowed him to retain vestiges of this ministerial role where he attends cabinet meetings and sees his colleagues socially,” former ambassador to China and career public servant David Mulroney said. “Normally, you try to avoid that because you serve all Canadians. It’s a non-partisan role.”

At a Toronto-area news conference for Chinese-language media, including Beijing’s state broadcaster, CCTV, and state-run press agency Xinhua News, Mr. McCallum had said Ms. Meng has “strong arguments” she can employ to persuade a Canadian court to reject a request for her extradition to the United States on allegations of banking fraud relating to U.S. sanctions against Iran. He then listed three reasons why the United States might have a tough time persuading a Canadian judge to extradite Ms. Meng to the United States and even suggested the Americans might cut a deal with China to end the matter and allow her to return home in exchange for the release of two Canadians detained in China.

Two days later, with opposition parties calling for his resignation, Mr. McCallum apologized, saying he misspoke, something he has had to do many times throughout his political career. But this particular misstep comes at a critical juncture, as the Meng affair has quickly and thoroughly chilled what had been a warming relationship with the world’s second-largest economy. And it is raising the question of whether Mr. McCallum’s close connection to Mr. Trudeau, originally touted as benefit, is now becoming a liability.

Mr. McCallum’s comments appeared to undermine the Trudeau government’s repeated insistence that the Meng case will be free of political interference. But he was not speaking out of turn when he speculated about the possibility that the diplomatic dispute could be settled if the United States and China cut a trade deal.

After U.S. President Donald Trump suggested Ms. Meng could be used as a pawn in the trade talks, Canada asked the Americans to ensure two Canadians would also be freed as part of any such deal, according to a senior Canadian government official who, as with others interviewed for this story, was not authorized to publicly speak about the delicate discussions. Mr. McCallum later confirmed to the Toronto Star on Friday in Vancouver and said this would be “great” if it happened.

In fact, senior officials say Mr. McCallum had the approval of the Prime Minister’s office to explain how the extradition process works to Chinese media and make the case that Ms. Meng would be able to mount a strong legal defence in Canada. Unfortunately, he muddled the message, one senior official said, speaking on background. His performance was not helpful, another official added, especially after the envoy’s comments were welcomed in China as an affirmation of Beijing’s assertion that Ms. Meng’s arrest was politically motivated.

NO STRANGER TO VERBAL GAFFES

It’s not the first time the 68-year-old envoy, dispatched to Beijing in early 2017, has stirred controversy. In January, 2018, Mr. McCallum departed from Ottawa’s cautious statements on the Trump administration by declaring that Canada had more in common with China under President Xi Jinping than the United States under Mr. Trump.

A former Canadian diplomat says embassy staff in Beijing complain that Mr. McCallum acts more like an elected official than a diplomatic envoy, telling listeners “my people have told me not to say this, but I am going to say it anyway.”

Mr. McCallum, a former academic who worked as chief economist at Royal Bank of Canada before entering federal politics in 2000, is no stranger to verbal gaffes. But his competence as a minister, and his stature within the Liberal Party, helped him survive those episodes.

He was widely mocked in 2002 while serving as defence minister for saying he had never heard of the 1942 Dieppe raid, a fateful operation and retreat for Canadian and Allied armies during the Second World War. In 2003, he suggested Canadian troops could avoid friendly-fire incidents by wearing some of Conservative MP Elsie Wayne’s clothing. He later apologized.

That same year, Mr. McCallum tripped up during a massive power outage when he told Canadian and U.S. journalists he had been advised a fire at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant sparked the blackout. He blamed the “fog of war” for comments that caused North Americans to panic temporarily that a nuclear plant might be melting down in Pennsylvania. Mr. McCallum later said he should have described it as a power outage at a nuclear plant, but the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency dismissed Mr. McCallum’s comments, saying none of the state’s nuclear power plants had failed.

During this time, Mr. McCallum announced he had quit alcohol after an incident involving an Air Canada employee who refused to allow him to board an aircraft because he had too much to drink.

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Among Liberal power brokers and senior civil servants, however, Mr. McCallum is held in high esteem.

As Mr. Trudeau’s immigration minister between late 2015 and early 2017, he won accolades for helping to resettle 50,000 Syria refugees in Canada. During the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin governments, he held the Defence and Veterans Affairs portfolios and headed a cabinet committee on expenditure review.

Alex Himelfarb, clerk of the Privy Council during the Chrétien-Martin era, called Mr. McCallum an “honourable man” and extremely capable minister. “I recall him as extremely collegial, respectful in all his actions. He took seriously his ministerial responsibilities. He did his homework. He read the files. He was in every respect a solid member of cabinet,” Mr. Himelfarb said.

As defence minister, Mr. McCallum reversed a long-standing inequity in which only colonels or high-ranking officers were entitled to up to $250,000 if they lost a limb or their eyesight in active duty.

In the Martin years, Mr. McCallum ushered in the controversial veterans' charter that stripped former Canadian Forces members of a monthly pension, instead opting for lump-sum payments.

Eddie Goldenberg, an Ottawa lawyer and adviser in the Chrétien PMO, said Mr. McCallum’s “knowledge and common sense” were respected around the cabinet table.

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“He was a terrific, first-class minister. He did a great job when I was there under prime minister Chrétien. He did a fantastic job under Prime Minister Trudeau with respect to bringing the Syrian immigrants in,” Mr. Goldenberg said. “I had the highest regard for him around the cabinet table.”

When he moved to the Opposition benches after Stephen Harper’s victory in 2006, Mr. McCallum began to travel extensively to China at the expense of Beijing-friendly groups. He took trips valued at $73,300 from China or pro-Beijing business groups, such as the Canadian Confederation of Fujian Associations.

No laws ban Canadian legislators from accepting such junkets and other countries occasionally cover the travel costs of visiting parliamentarians. However, those countries are not trying to assert global influence for a dictatorial government. Australia and New Zealand have raised concerns about China’s attempts to gain influence, from paying for junkets to making political donations.

MISSION IN CHINA

The Meng case has handed Mr. McCallum his greatest test as ambassador.

Mr. McCallum went to China armed with three words – “more, more, more” – and soon added the Chinese version: “geng duo, geng duo, geng duo.” It became a sort of stump speech for his tenure, delivered at official meetings and public appearances, alike. When it comes to China, “Canada wants more, more, more,” Mr. McCallum said.

As Canada’s first political appointment to Beijing, he said his mission was to promote economic matters while holding to Canada’s traditional role as an outspoken supporter of human rights. During his time, the embassy has taken a lead in co-ordinating international criticism of China on matters such as the incarceration of large numbers of Muslims in political-indoctrination centres.

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But Mr. McCallum was also dispatched with a mandate to help bring about Mr. Trudeau’s goal of a much warmer relationship with the world’s second-largest economy, a job he took to with gusto. He regularly boasts about his family connections to China – his wife is Malaysian, although ethnically Chinese – and has described a “great new era of a solid relationships with China.”

Shi Yinhong, the director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University and one of China’s top political studies scholars, told The Globe and Mail this week that Mr. McCallum "has always been nice to China.”

For the Trudeau government, sending a former minister to China was designed to send a message of commitment to the relationship. The hope was that Beijing would notice and would reciprocate with a more open welcome. That proved true at first – China publicly vaunted a new “golden age” with Canada.

But any new warmth dissipated in December of 2017, when Mr. Trudeau went to Beijing with hopes of formalizing the start of free-trade talks. Instead, the two sides bickered over Canada’s demands for progressive elements in chapters on labour, the environment and gender. The visit ended with no deal and Mr. Trudeau left on a sour note.

Those involved with the visit cited problems from Ottawa, including an unclear mandate from cabinet, and from the Chinese, who gave contradicting signals.

But Mr. McCallum was also seen as having given bad counsel to the PMO on China’s openness to the deal, leading to confusion when Mr. Trudeau arrived in Beijing to discover that much disagreement remained.

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Ms. Meng’s arrest on Dec. 1, 2018, set off an escalating diplomatic row between Canada and China, which intensified after the detention of two Canadians: Michael Kovrig, a diplomat on leave, and businessman Michael Spavor. China also sentenced another Canadian, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, to death after he appealed his drug-smuggling case. Mr. Schellenberg had been sentenced in 2016 to 15 years behind bars.

“I’m going back to China tomorrow and my first order of business is to see Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig within the first week of my return, and that is my top priority,” Mr. McCallum said on Friday in Vancouver.

But it’s Mr. McCallum’s comments on the Meng case that have sowed confusion about the message Canada was trying to send to China – or the United States.

“If he is someone who has the ear of the Prime Minister and is channelling the Prime Minister, then his comments are more problematic. And if he isn’t – what the heck was he doing?” Mr. Mulroney said.

‘BIG HICCUP’

The Prime Minister meekly defended his envoy this week after Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called for his resignation and former diplomats denounced Mr. McCallum for his remarks.

Mr. Mulroney was especially concerned to hear Mr. McCallum play down China’s conduct as it if were merely an aberration. Beijing’s arrest of two Canadians in apparent retaliation for the detention of Ms. Meng is being criticized by China watchers as “hostage diplomacy.” And it’s prompting a rethink in Western capitals about how to address the increasingly aggressive conduct of China under its President, Mr. Xi.

Mr. McCallum this week characterized what has transpired between Canada and China as a “big hiccup,” telling reporters he believed the two countries would eventually move on.

Mr. Mulroney said the envoy’s approach harks back to a previous era in which Canada would always quietly let the Chinese off the hook. “It’s as if these things are inconsequential rather than indicative of the seriously negative direction that China going in.”

Mr. Mulroney said the public servants who normally would tell ambassadors to alter their conduct “are probably reluctant to take on someone who is a former cabinet minister.”

Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s previous ambassador to China, said he believes Mr. McCallum was sent to China "as a good cop” to tell Beijing that Canada wants stronger economic and political ties than under Mr. Harper’s Conservatives, during which the relationship was sometimes frosty.

“I told the PMO that he won’t have any better access than I have," Mr. Saint-Jacques said. “The Chinese treat all foreign ambassadors the same way. It is extremely difficult to have access at the high level.”

He said the diplomatic standoff with China is the worst crisis since Canada established diplomatic relations in 1970.

Mr. Saint-Jacques said the Prime Minister needs to find a replacement for Mr. McCallum and, in the meantime, Ottawa should dispatch a special envoy to Beijing to try to defuse the crisis.

With a report from Andrea Woo

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