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A woman wearing a face mask to help protect against the coronavirus walks past the Canadian Embassy in Beijing on Aug. 6, 2020.Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press

Even amid frosty relations with China, Ottawa is looking to make a big “medium- to long-term investment” in its Beijing embassy to relieve “growth pressure” on the mission, according to a request for proposals posted by the federal government.

Ottawa is looking for a company in China to help put together a “forward-looking, ambitious, integrated and coherent” master plan to renovate its four-acre compound – partly to address the property’s evident security flaws.

In fact, a former ambassador to China said any new master plan for the embassy has to take into account “the security challenges that China poses.”

The request for proposals was posted to a government contracting site Tuesday and is seeking architects, engineers and urban planners to help design renovations and expansions that would maximize the use of the embassy grounds. A master plan, worth about $100,000, is expected to be delivered within a year of the contract being awarded.

“As one of the [Government of Canada’s] priority relationships, it is anticipated that the Beijing Mission will continue to see program growth in the short to medium term,” the documents say.

It’s a bullish vision for an embassy that has become emblematic of Canada’s fits-and-starts relationship with China. The embassy has grown, taken on new staff and added new programs, even as successive governments have grappled with Beijing’s abhorrent human-rights record.

New buildings were erected as part of initiatives to attract trade, investors and skilled immigrants, but they have become “overcrowded” over the past two decades, the solicitation documents say. A master plan for the embassy was drawn up in 2011 but never implemented.

The new expansion plans come as Ottawa appears paralyzed in its approach to President Xi Jinping’s government. A free-trade agreement and an extradition treaty have notionally been put on ice after a diplomatic row over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the behest of Washington. Since then, Ottawa has been trying, without success, to free Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were apparently detained in retaliation.

Still, Canada’s ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, believes “the weight of the world is shifting and has shifted toward Asia, so we need to do more in China,” according to a speech he delivered last week.

The solicitation documents prepared by Global Affairs Canada certainly suggest there will be plenty of work for the mission on Dongzhimen Outer Street.

Michael Chong, the Conservative shadow minister of foreign affairs, questions the wisdom of the whole project. Efforts to boost immigration and trade under previous governments, he said, were in a “very different context.”

“We should re-examine the resources we have deployed in China for trade and commerce,” Mr. Chong told The Globe. “There are many other opportunities around the world with like-minded liberal democracies.” Those countries should be the focus, he said, not countries that have “kidnapped” Canadian citizens, among other things.

David Mulroney was first posted to China in 1986 – when Canada’s embassy was in a house, he recalled – and served in various other postings around the world before becoming the Canadian ambassador to China in 2009.

He is quite fond of the embassy. Chinese guests would often tell him that the grounds, especially the greenery, “suggested something of Canada to them.”

But, he said, “we never anticipated, when it was built, the size of the immigration program,” nor did they “appreciate the growth of the trade program.” In the 1980s, Mr. Mulroney said, “It would have been hard then to predict what China would look like now.”

The trade mission has been housed in temporary accommodations for more than a decade, and “a number of offices still contain bathtubs and other plumbing fixtures from the original residences,” the solicitation documents note.

Part of the mission had to be torn down and rebuilt around 2000, after earthquakes compromised the foundation. At least one of the new buildings, however, has seen “rapid deterioration” due to “the high pollution levels and poor quality of materials available locally.” The age and condition of the chancery, which houses the diplomatic mission, is also “of particular concern.”

The documents also reveal that Canada has had trouble recruiting and retaining staff at the embassy because of the poor quality of Beijing’s air, which has had a negative impact on employees' health and “overall morale,” the documents say. Air filters and monitoring equipment were installed in the official residences, and staff were provided masks.

Mr. Mulroney said that if there are structural or safety issues, they should be addressed. But form should follow function in Beijing.

“I’d be very reluctant – and I caution them – of going into an investment project that redesigns the embassy when Ottawa hasn’t done the basic work of thinking about what the relationship is going to look like going forward,” he said.

“Let’s not build a geng duo embassy,” said Mr. Mulroney, referencing a now-infamous speech from John McCallum, one of his successors, in which he used the Chinese word in triplicate: more, more, more.

If Canada does carry out significant expansions, it will mean a huge amount of work. The main building is only about 40 years old, and agreements with the Chinese government mean Canada has the right to use the property until at least 2048. The Chinese government, however, “advised the Mission in 2012 that the main compound exceeded allowable gross area by approximately 5%,” the documents say. As such, “any new construction will … require demolition and a rebuild within the existing footprint.”

Global Affairs is hoping that the new master plan will make the embassy more accessible to the Chinese public, playing host to everything from a cultural centre to a library to trade showcases.

To that end, Mr. Mulroney cautioned against trying to do too much with the embassy. “You should never be building a place that replicates a hotel ballroom,” he said, recalling that he used to put on barbecues for Chinese bloggers during his four years in the embassy.

But “this isn’t the promotional era anymore.” He said the next few years will likely be a more “thoughtful era” of Canadian-Chinese relations.

The documents also makes clear that there are security deficiencies at the embassy. A lack of space meant an underground parking garage was converted into a file storage room.

In recent years, there has been growing concern about Chinese espionage. The U.S. and China even shuttered each other’s consulates this year in a row over intellectual property theft.

Mr. Mulroney recalled that security breaches were a constant concern. “We’ve had everything from North Koreans climbing over the walls to the attempts of the Chinese themselves trying to penetrate the space,” he said.

Companies bidding on the project must already be located in China or must have a sizable footprint there. They will be required to obtain only the lowest level of security clearance and will be permitted to use staff that have not been vetted. (The solicitation documents say the project will be “protected A” material, the lowest level of classification.)

Mr. Chong said security should be top of mind at the compound. “We ought to be concerned about potential espionage,” he said.

Mr. Mulroney, too, said the low security requirements jumped out for him “in a big way.”

The former ambassador said the master plan “will be heavily criticized by Canadians if it’s not seen to reflect the sharpest and keenest awareness of the security challenges that China poses.”

John Babcock, a spokesman for Global Affairs, said the contractor will not have access to sensitive information such as “detailed floor layouts, current asset condition status or access to physical assets.”

Mr. Mulroney’s advice to the government is to shelve any prospect of a master plan.

“This is a really strange time to be spending a lot of money,” he said. “It sounds like a bad idea from almost every side of the question.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe in Beijing

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