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Freeland Leads Foreign Affairs, McCallum Accepts China Assignment

Amid significant shifts within the Canada-China relationship, and international relationships more generally, several positions in the cabinet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been changed. Canada’s new ambassador to China will be John McCallum, formerly Canadian Immigration minister, with his old position now filled by Somalia-born Ahmed Hussen. In addition, the foreign affairs file is now headed by Chrystia Freeland, indicating that China trade will be a priority for the government.

For China, the appointment of McCallum as ambassador to Beijing gives China a long-wanted, politically connected link to Canada’s government. He will likely be tasked with helping expand the Canada-China relationship and advance Canada beyond exploratory talks for a free trade deal with China. McCallum, who has a wife of Chinese origin, was responsible for overseeing the arrival of almost 40,000 Syrian refugees – a key file in Trudeau’s government – during his time as immigration minister.

40% of McCallum’s electoral district of Markham-Thornville is of Chinese origin, and his leaving for China and from politics will trigger a by-election in that seat. While the appointment of the first Canadian politician as ambassador to China will likely make Beijing happy due to his contacts, the reverse, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in part appointed McCallum in order to have a well-connected ambassador representing the Trudeau government within a priority country, is also likely. The Foreign Service has always been the source of ambassadors to China in the past; China joins a short list of countries with non-Foreign Service appointees, comprised of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States – all countries with strong historical and modern ties to Canada.

The appointment of former International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland’s to Minister of Foreign Affairs could indicate a shift in focus by the Canadian government towards more trade oriented diplomacy, mainly with the United States but also towards China. Given American president-elect Donald Trump’s vow to renegotiate NAFTA, and the free trade agreement talks with China which are slated to start as early as February, it may be that Freeland was viewed as a more appropriate alternative for the Foreign Affairs file’s pivot to focusing on trade issues. Potential changes to American policy towards trade in general would also put Canada at risk, thereby adding a secondary impetus for Canada to seek diversification of markets in places like China.

Freeland enters her position with a number of China topics to handle, and she will likely have to seek a balance on various issues: prior to her entry to politics, she had already raised concerns about China’s human rights situation, while at the same time noting a desire to balance these concerns with economic agendas. Some of these economic agendas she faces with include the goal, announced in September, to double Canada-China trade by 2025; the start of FTA discussions with China in February; the launching of public consultations on said China FTA some time in 2017; and diversifying Canada’s trading relationship in the aftermath of the TPP’s apparent scuttling by the incoming American administration.

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