Envoy John McCallum signals that Canada is not the enemy

  • With Beijing and Ottawa at loggerheads, ambassador John McCallum is taking an unorthodox approach in the stand-off over Meng Wanzhou
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 January, 2019, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 January, 2019, 10:09pm

Is John McCallum in Beijing’s pocket, or a clever Canadian official taking a big risk to help his country break out of an intractable diplomatic conundrum?

We may never know. But either way, the Canadian ambassador to China appears to be making an unorthodox approach to help resolve a diplomatic stand-off. The two countries have been at loggerheads following the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver and the subsequent detention of two Canadians in China.

It was surely not an accident that McCallum chose on Tuesday to speak to Chinese-language media in Markham, Ontario, to declare that Meng had a strong case against extradition to the United States where she is expected to face fraud charges for allegedly breaching American sanctions against Iran. He did so after briefing Canadian lawmakers about the conditions of two citizens detained in China and a third one facing the death penalty for drug trafficking – cases believed to be in retaliation for Meng’s arrest.

McCallum’s extraordinary remarks sounded almost like legal strategies for her team. But what he actually said is less important than the fact that he appeared to be offering legal advice. As a senior diplomat representing Ottawa, he could be construed as trying to interfere with the Canadian judicial process, according to some legal experts. But that, perhaps, is precisely the point.

Meng Wanzhou has ‘strong case’, says Canada’s ambassador in shock remark

His are not the first remarks made by an official about how to obtain a desirable outcome in Meng’s case. US President Donald Trump himself has mused about how it could help his trade war with China. Taken together, a judge presiding over an extradition hearing and/or the Canadian justice minister – who must clear the extradition to proceed – will have to take into account whether the case has become too politically tainted. At the very least, McCallum’s remarks won’t help US prosecutors who still have to file a formal extradition request by the January 30 deadline.

Critics in Canada have been quick to paint McCallum as “pro-Beijing”, pointing to his previous China-friendly remarks and expensive trips he took to China that were sponsored by Chinese groups when he was a member of parliament. He is undeniably “a friend of China”.

But at a time when Ottawa seems completely hapless in its dealings with Chinese hardball tactics, he is at least signalling to Beijing that Canada and its citizens are not the enemy.