Trudeau names new ambassador to China who will face ‘headwinds’ in frosty relationship, say experts

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OTTAWA – The Liberal government tapped career diplomat Jennifer May has Canada’s new ambassador to China, a choice applauded by experts that warn that she will face many “headwinds.”

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Speaking to reporters Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said one of May’s priorities for Canada’s relationship with China will be human rights.

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May was since 2019 Canada’s ambassador to Brazil. Before that, she held postings in Germany, Thailand, Austria and Hong Kong as well as working at Global Affairs Canada (GAC) headquarters in Ottawa for many years.  She speaks fluent Mandarin.

This is not May’s first experience working in China, as she was spent four years Beijing starting in 2000 working in the Canadian embassy’s political section, according to her LinkedIn profile.

The Canadian posting in China has been vacant since the previous ambassador, Dominic Barton, stepped down in early December after just over two years on the job. Barton helped negotiate the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig from Chinese prison but was criticized for his efforts to expand business ties between China and Canada at the same time.

A senior government source explained that part of the reason May was chosen was because of her previous experience working in China and Brazil as well as on Russian files while stationed in Ottawa. They say that gives them greater insight into the thinking of emerging “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries.

“The way we see it, there are two coalitions that are forming, the G7 and BRIC. So if you don’t understand China’s alignment on the world stage, then you’re missing crucial context to advise the government,” the source explained. “The fact she’s been posted in Brazil gives her an advantage that is good for (Canada).”

The source was granted anonymity to speak freely of internal deliberations.

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May takes over the job at a crucial time for Canada-China relations. Diplomatic ties have been frigid since Canadian police arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the United States’ request in 2018. China then arrested Spavor and Kovrig in what Canada described as retaliatory “hostage” diplomacy.

Global Affairs Canada is also currently working on the country’s newest “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” an impending flagship policy strategy that aims to diversify and strengthen the Canada’s diplomatic, trade and military relationships in Asia and the Pacific.

The new policy is widely seen as a way to reduce Canada’s economic and trade dependence on China and its increasingly hawkish foreign policy.

“What I’m hoping if and when this strategy does come out, is that it sort of de-emphasizes China… Part of the problem is that we’ve neglected relationships in Tokyo and Seoul and elsewhere,” said Jonathan Miller, director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. “We’ve put too many of our eggs in one basket.”

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He added that much of May’s new role will be to “manage risks” and the many “challenges” that have already surfaced between the two countries. She should also make sure to address the “risks” for the private sector doing business in Canada, such as forced tech transfers and intellectual property theft by China.

“She’s going to face a lot of these headwinds,” Milled said.

We’ve put too many eggs in one basket

Both Miller and former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques agreed that May is a strong choice for the important role, as did a slew of other experts on social media.

But they also agree that her job will be quite difficult, namely because of China’s increasingly “aggressive” and “arrogant” foreign policy and because it considers Canada as a medium player at best on the world stage.

“Hopefully, she will be able to re-establish some level of dialogue with China. But we cannot expect the relationship to come back to what it was prior to the detention of Ms. Meng, because in the meantime we have learned a lot about China, how tough a place it is and how (President) Xi Jinping has cracked down on human rights and freedom of speech,” Saint-Jacques said in an interview.

Finally, an appointment that serves Canada rather than one that pleases China. Now give her a policy to work with,” tweeted David Mulroney, another former Canadian ambassador to China.

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