John McCallum says making the move from immigration minister to ambassador to China isn't as big a leap as people might think.

He pointed to his wife, who is Chinese, and to constituents in his Markham-Thornhill riding, many of whom are also of Chinese descent.

"So in my personal life, in my work life, and with visits to China, I have lived and breathed things Chinese for a long, long time," he told reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons after Tuesday's cabinet shuffle.

McCallum said the appointment first came up in a conversation with the prime minister last week.

"He spoke about the importance of a knowledge of China, and also a link to his office that I would have," McCallum said.

It is unusual to appoint a sitting cabinet minister to an ambassador's job.

"I need my top people to be out there engaging at the highest levels around the world," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of the appointment.

More than trade

David Mulroney, Canada's former ambassador to China and current president of St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto, applauded the move.

"The Chinese are going to be impressed with his experience, his academic credentials and the fact that the prime minister obviously listens to him," Mulroney told Rosemary Barton, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

Mulroney said McCallum's economics background will help with exploratory talks for a possible free trade deal with China.

But he cautions trade won't be the only issue to cross the new ambassador's desk.

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Trudeau met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing this summer. The Canadian government has expressed interest in a trade deal with China and a partnership on green technology. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

"The fact is that we have a big, rich, but complicated relationship with the Chinese. So there are big environmental files, health is a big file, education is a huge file," Mulroney said.

"And then there are a series of things we don't want to deal with but China is a security challenge, and will be an increasing security challenge — whether its in its region, whether its cyber espionage, interference in Canadian affairs. And there will be a dimension of China interfering with Canadians and we've seen that recently."

Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent said he hopes McCallum raises those issues in Beijing.

"I think Ambassador McCallum needs to talk directly and honestly and frankly to the Chinese about Canadians' concerns about human rights abuse. He needs to talk about improving trade but improving trade on an equal playing field," Kent told CBC News.

Sarah Kutulakos, executive director of the Canada China Business Council, said McCallum's economic background will be an asset in dealing with China. 

"We hope that he will take with him an understanding of what it is that Canadian companies want from their relationship with China because there's a lot of things that can improve," said Kutulakos.

"It's a tough place to do business. It can be very rewarding and profitable but it's never easy."

Eye on the Americans

McCallum will move into this role at a time when the United States — from the president-elect to his new cabinet — is taking a more aggressive stance on China.

Mulroney and others have speculated that if Canada gets too close to China, it could undermine this country's relationship with the U.S., its number one trading partner.

McCallum dismissed that concern.

"Whoever is the president of the United States, whatever the policy of the United States might be, China and the Chinese economy and Canada-China relations are extremely important. We are a trading nation. China is the second biggest GDP in the world with a high growth rate and much of Canada's future lies in our dealings with China," he said.

McCallum isn't the ambassador just yet — that will happen when his credentials are accepted by the Chinese government. In the meantime, he's promised to work on improving his Mandarin.

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Ahmed Hussen is sworn in as the new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, replacing John McCallum. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)