Former ambassador John McCallum a no-show at China committee

The Commons Committee on Canada-China Relations went ahead today without the presence of its most-anticipated witness: former Trudeau government cabinet minister and ambassador to China John McCallum.

Committee heard from witnesses saying government needs to stiffen its backbone with China

Then-ambassador to China John McCallum after a federal cabinet meeting in Sherbrooke, Que., Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (The Canadian Press)

The Special Commons Committee on Canada-China Relations went ahead today without the presence of its most-anticipated witness: former Trudeau government cabinet minister and ambassador to China John McCallum.

Former ambassadors Howard Balloch and Guy Saint-Jacques both attended in person, and McCallum was expected to join them by videolink.

CBC News has learned that the ambassador, who was fired by the Trudeau government last year, did send written remarks. But he did not face questions about his time in office. The committee did not give a reason for McCallum's absence and he is not currently in Canada.

Still, the testimony by the two ambassadors who did appear revealed a gulf between their views and those of the two Trudeau-appointed ambassadors — McCallum and his successor Dominic Barton — who appeared before the committee two weeks ago.

Balloch and Saint-Jacques both said engaging with China was unavoidable. But their comments echoed three other expert witnesses who told MPs that the "engagement paradigm" personified by Barton and McCallum — the belief that more engagement with China will lead it to moderate its authoritarian ways — is increasingly discredited among professional China-watchers.

Don't play with an empty net

Howard Balloch was Canada's ambassador to China from 1996 to 2001. He said it was not realistic to merely seek to contain China — that while engagement is a vital Canadian interest, it's purpose should be to serve Canadian interests, not to change China.

He described the current approach as a multi-party consensus that dates back to the Mulroney era.

"Engagement does not mean making friction-free or good relations the priority. It means playing with a full team of talented players, not playing with an empty net," he said. "Making clear that there are lines that should not be crossed, lines that need to be defended when Canadians are mistreated in China, when we find interference and even extortion in the Canadian Chinese communities, or when there is abuse of our unreciprocated press and media freedom."

'Protect our values'

Saint-Jacques spent 13 years in China as a Canadian diplomat, the last four as ambassador from 2012 to 2016. He told the committee that its hearings offered the chance for Canada to change course. "We have to review our engagement strategy with China and base our approach on the protection of our values, and on reciprocity," he said.

Saint-Jacques said China under the Communist Party should be seen as a "systemic rival" and "strategic competitor" that "will never follow western democratic norms because that would destabilize the Communist Party."

"It has become very difficult to remain ambivalent about China," Saint-Jacques added, citing its "brutal retaliatory measures" and its treatment of Hong Kong's democracy movement and the Uighur minority.

'They don't respect weakness'

"On every aspect, we should base our actions on reciprocity," Saint-Jacques replied when asked about Canada's handling of the detentions of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. "You know, you had Dominic Barton here. He has very little access as have the staff of the embassy. So why should we trot over to the Chinese Residence to have a good Chinese meal for lunch or dinner?"

Saint-Jacques said the principle of reciprocity should also be applied in trade.

"Once China started interfering with our agricultural exports like canola, we should have reacted right away," he said.

People hold signs calling for China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig during an extradition hearing for Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, March 6, 2019. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

Saint-Jacques asked why Canada was simply accepting that Chinese toys do not have leaded paint, or that its apple juice or frozen fish are safe to eat.

"If you just adopt a laissez-faire attitude, if you let them walk over you, you end up as roadkill."

Balloch seconded Saint-Jacques's assessment: "The one thing that China respects is firmness. They don't respect weakness." He also seemed to criticize the Trudeau government's handling of the canola file: "Giving in when they're using leverage like that is the wrong response."

Balloch instead cited the U.S. response to China's expulsion of some Wall Street Journal reporters from the country for writing unfavourable articles about COVID-19. Washington responded by ordering Chinese state-controlled media to draw down their staffs in the US.

"That is a good message of reciprocity," said Balloch. 

Ambassadors: Support Taiwan

The ex-ambassadors also called for Canada to support Taiwan, a country that has faced escalating threats from the Xi Jinping regime.

Few topics are as likely to provoke an angry response from China as western support for democrats in Hong Kong or Taiwan.

"There is rule of law in Taiwan," said Saint-Jacques, "and we should look at ways to support the very clear result that came out of the elections in January, and we should be very clear that we support democracy and there should be no pressure put on Taiwan."

Experts weigh in

Three China experts also testified today: Bonnie Glaser, who heads the China Power Project at the Washington think tank CSIS; Yun Sun, who directs the China program at the Stinson Center and was — like Michael Kovrig — a China-based analyst for the International Crisis Group; and David Shambaugh, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University and author of more than 20 books about China.

They described a hardening of attitudes toward China across both parties in the U.S., and in the European Union. And they put Canada's difficulties with China in the context of a world where several countries (17 by Shambaugh's count) have recently faced similar pressure campaigns from Beijing.

"China does not respect the rule of law, it does not share liberal democratic values, and it does not protect human rights," said Glaser. "It is seeking to alter the international system in ways that would be favourable to China and detrimental to western interests."

She pointed to the Trudeau government's decision to purchase a stake in China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as unhelpful. "Identify sources of leverage and use them," she said. Leaving the bank "would deal a blow to China's reputation."


Shambaugh said he had read, and agreed with, testimony by former Canadian diplomat Charles Burton.

Burton was critical of current ambassador Dominic Barton, who told the committee that Chinese civilization was predisposed to authoritarian rule.

Canada's Ambassador to China Dominic Barton waits to appear before the House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations in Ottawa, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"They place an importance on the values of collectivism and harmony, owing to a Confucian heritage," Barton said on February 5. "Understanding the extent to which China values unity and the needs of society at large, rather than freedom of individual choice ... we just have to understand that."

In his appearance, Burton objected to Barton's remarks: "This assertion by our ambassador is consistent with the official propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party."

Shambaugh said it was important to stop approaching China "as a cultural and civilizational entity" and start seeing it more through the lens of a "Chinese Communist-Leninist state."

Yun Sun said she agreed with Shambaugh that China "should not be treated as a civilization or a cultural concept. It is a real country with realpolitik thinking in its international behaviour."

She argued that China was not seeking equality with other nations. "In China's view, harmony does not originate from equality between nations, but from a well-defined and well-enforced hierarchy" in which other governments "pledge their deference to a strong and benevolent hegemon" in Beijing.


  • This story has been updated from a previous version that misspelled former ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques's name.
    Mar 10, 2020 2:54 PM ET