Canada can manage relationships with China and U.S. at same time, says John McCallum

Canada's new ambassador to China says this country can "walk and chew gum at the same time," by establishing friendly relationships with U.S. President Donald Trump while maintaining healthy relations with the Chinese leadership.

New ambassador to China says Canada is pressing for consular access to Huseyin Celil

John McCallum says he is confident Canada can manage relationships with both the U.S. and China at the same time. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada's new ambassador to China says this country can "walk and chew gum at the same time," by establishing friendly relationships with U.S. President Donald Trump while at the same time maintaining healthy relations with the Chinese leadership.   

Former immigration minister John McCallum made the remarks in an interview with CBC Radio's The House airing this Saturday.  

McCallum is heading to China at the same time as Canada begins exploratory talks on a free trade deal with the country. The beginning of those talks are set against a backdrop of rising tensions between the U.S. and China as Trump threatens to levy tariffs on Chinese imports.

Asked by host Chris Hall if Canada risks getting caught up in a tug of war between the two economic superpowers, McCallum expressed optimism. 

"As I say we can walk and chew gum at the same time," McCallum said. "The United States relationship is by far and away the most important, and the prime minister is actively pursuing that along with his cabinet, but meanwhile over in China, I am pursuing Canadian interests and values and I believe there is great scope there."

Despite Trump's anti China rhetoric, McCallum says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hasn't altered his objectives for relations with China.

"I think [Trudeau] is very clear that we want to pursue stronger ties with China," he said. "We think that in the medium term this will lead to more Canadian jobs."

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, the former international trade minister, said the first round of exploratory face-to-face talks with China on free trade will begin next month.

McCallum wouldn't hazard a guess on when a deal will be signed, but said hopefully it will take Canada less time than Australia did to strike its free trade agreement with China, which came into force in December of 2015.

"Australians, may I remind you, took 10 years to complete such a deal. I think now that we have Australia as something of a model, or template, it might take less than 10 years," he said. "I can't say for sure." 

Huseyin Celil's case top of mind

Another balancing act for McCallum will be advocating strong economic ties with China without compromising Canada's human rights record.

Huseyin Celil, a dual Canadian-Chinese citizen imprisoned in China for speaking out on behalf of the country's Uighur minority, is a case in point.

According to Amnesty International, Celil was arrested in Uzbekistan in 2006 and transferred to China where he was put on trial without access to his lawyer, his family or Canadian officials.

"We are certainly pushing for consular access. Anywhere in the world that has the death penalty we seek clemency," McCallum said. "Consular issues are a matter of the heart."