Wednesday, Nov 13, 2019 | Last Update : 07:57 PM IST

The China-Canada diplomatic mess should be a warning to South Block

The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. The views expressed here are personal.
Published : Feb 8, 2019, 12:07 am IST
Updated : Feb 8, 2019, 12:07 am IST

Not surprisingly, the Canadian diplomat did not endear himself to his colleagues and countrymen.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Photo: AP)
 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Photo: AP)

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deserves to be complimented for withdrawing his ambassador John McCallum from Beijing. Diplomats are “privileged” officials who represent their country on foreign soil, essentially to look after their own country’s interests. An ambassador, being the seniormost, is the boss of his nation’s embassy staff in a foreign land. Hence an ambassador, being the confidant of his country’s government and political leadership, has to be in tune with them. There is no scope for any dissent, disagreement or personal opinions to be expressed in public. In case an ambassador feels strongly about an issue and disagrees with his own government’s viewpoint of policy, the only course open to him or her is to resign and then express his views as a private citizen.

Mr McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, surprisingly appeared to be providing legal counselling to Meng Wanzhou, daughter of the founder of Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei Technologies, who was arrested in Vancouver on December 1, 2018 on the serious charges of espionage and financial irregularities. She secured bail, but her extradition to the United States still looms large.

Understandably, China was furious as Ms Meng’s arrest was seen as a personal affront to Beijing’s lifelong ruler, President Xi Jinping, and a direct assault on his policies. China, desperate to take Ms Meng out of a legal mess on foreign soil, started its trademark gunboat diplomacy; simultaneously firing on all cylinders and from all possible angles.

In the midst of this deteriorating Sino-Canadian relationship, the “intervention” by Mr McCallum as the “saviour” of Beijing left fellow diplomats and compatriots shocked. It stunned many others too, all those who still believe in the concept of a “nation state” and don’t feel the need to provide (unwarranted) extra-jurisdictional support and sympathy to an aggressive foreign nation. Ambassador McCallum appeared to be super sensitive, and more supportive of China rather than his own country, which had appointed him as its representative in Beijing. Reportedly, earlier too, he had stated that “Canada has more in common with China than (with) the United States”. What makes things a lot murkier is that Mr McCallum had “strong personal ties with China”. He informed the Chinese-language media that “his wife is of Chinese descent, and his three sons have Chinese spouses”.

Not surprisingly, the Canadian diplomat did not endear himself to his colleagues and countrymen. Even to an Indian, far away from Canada, the entire episode appeared bizarre! “Is blood thicker than water?” Is this a global phenomenon? Does one’s professional duty to one’s own nation state come first, or does personal kinship supersede all? The community of professional diplomats were left aghast, but true to their calling, they were mostly circumspect in public.

What really compelled PM Trudeau to sack his ambassador to China was when the envoy made repeated faux pas like a non-professional, flute-playing, sermonising, Left-ideology driven emotional teenager. “It would be ‘great’ if the US dropped its extradition request for a Chinese tech executive arrested in Canada”, he said, and went on to add that the “extradition of Ms Meng to the US would not be a happy outcome”. Further, with his suggestions that the case was “politically motivated” and that “the US could make a trade deal with China in which it would no longer seek her extradition, and two Canadians detained in China could be released”, it was clear that Mr McCallum had crossed the rubicon, from being a professional diplomat to resorting to politicking, thereby embarrassing his own country. It was time for Mr McCallum, the ambassador, to go home.

When Canada’s Opposition Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer said that Mr McCallum should have been sacked days ago because his remarks had raised concerns about the politicisation of the Meng case, he can hardly be faulted. At the end of the day, the Canadian PM gracefully heeded the advice of the Opposition as the reported view that “Mr McCallum caused damage to Canada’s reputation by delivering different messages through different media on different days” appeared valid and logical.

Unsurprisingly, colleagues like Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China, also “felt… it was the right thing to do” and that: “What’s worse is this is happening in middle of a crisis when we need all hands on deck.” Mr Saint-Jacques rubbed it in further: “The Chinese will now know that Mr McCallum was not speaking for the Canadian government.” The ambassador completely ignored the fact that in moments like this, “the government has to speak with a single, clear voice”.

This gross miscalculation by a seasoned Canadian “politician-cum-diplomat” didn’t go well with Canadian academia as well, as Robert Bothwell, a Toronto University professor, spelt out. “It’s not an ambassador’s job to speak out of turn. It does underline the hazards of sending a politician to do a diplomat’s job.”

The episode of the former Canadian ambassador to China provides food for thought for India as well, particularly for the mandarins of the external affairs ministry at South Block. Is sabotaging foreign diplomats on its own soil the new norm of Chinese diplomatic strategy? To penetrate the rival country’s establishment through their own diplomatic personnel? That China is already “buying” up the foreign media to serve Beijing’s interests is an “open secret”. Is it now the turn of diplomats? It’s becoming more and more apparent that a sizeable number of non-Chinese diplomats across the globe, after a stint in Beijing, are known to have graduated into diehard “China lobbyists” once back in their homeland, and in high positions within their foreign offices, in the garb of “globalisation, liberalisation, privatisation, bilateralism, trade, investment, people-to-people to contacts”.

The situation is becoming graver by the day as can be seen while perusing the simplest of issues — the bilateral trade figures between China and any other nation, India included. This pincer movement of the Chinese state — from within and without — today constitutes one of the biggest challenges facing countries across the world, in Asia and Africa as well as the developed nations of the West!

Tags: justin trudeau, xi jinping