Canada has been without an ambassador to China since the end of 2021, when Dominic Barton moved out of the Beijing offices.
The government says, while a representative will be named in “due course,” Canada continues to engage with China at the “highest levels” in the meantime.
“Minister Joly recently spoke with her counterpart, Wang Li, where they discussed the challenges of recent years, including cases of arbitrary detention, and the importance of frank dialogue,” reads a statement to CTVNews.ca from a spokesperson for the foreign affairs minister.
“With strong cultural and people-to-people ties, they discussed avenues of collaboration between the two countries on areas of mutual interest.”
But former ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques says the notable absence shows the prime minister “does not understand” the value of a strong diplomatic presence on the ground.
“Having an ambassador gives you intelligence… because here’s a person who can have access to high-level [information] that other people at the embassy can’t,” he said. “You are depriving yourself from all that useful information.”
Barton publicly announced his resignation on Dec. 6, 2021, just months after helping to secure the release of former diplomat and entrepreneur Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
The two men were arbitrarily detained and held in a Chinese jail for more than 1,000 days. Their arrests are widely seen as retaliation for the Vancouver arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request.
Those events launched what would become nearly three years of icy relations between Canada and China.
While Meng’s case has been dropped and the Michaels have returned to Canada, tensions mounted in recent months when the government announced it would ban China’s Huawei Technologies and ZET, another Chinese company, from participating in Canada’s 5G wireless networks.
Ottawa cited national security concerns as the key reason for the ban.
Following the announcement, China’s representative in Canada swiftly condemned the move stating that Ottawa was “acting in collusion with the U.S. to suppress Chinese enterprises.”
“Canada’s so-called security concerns are nothing but a cover for political manipulation… The erroneous actions of the Canadian side will certainly harm Canada’s own interests and international image,” a series of tweets read.
Saint-Jacques said there’s an enhanced necessity to appoint an ambassador as Canada develops an Indo-Pacific strategy.
Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly’s mandate letter asks that the strategy seek to deepen diplomatic, economic and defence partnerships, and international assistance in the region.
She announced the creation of an Indo-Pacific Advisory Committee on June 9, to provide recommendations on the overall strategy. Barton is listed as a member.
The former ambassador says, while he respects the perspectives of the appointees, he still considers the committee a stall tactic.
“It’s another tactic to delay making a decision, and trying to give some kind of cover. It’s high time that the government make a decision, ” he said.
Conservative MP and foreign affairs critic Michael Chong echoed a similar sentiment in a statement to CTVNews.ca.
“We still await the government’s new policy on China, which has been promised since 2019, but never delivered – and now delayed yet again with the government’s recent announcement to consult further by creating a special committee,” he said.
The Indo-Pacific strategy is a notable shift away from the government’s longstanding focus on the Asia-Pacific region specifically, and reflects a need to consider issues beyond just those associated with just China.
Chong added that the absence of a Canadian ambassador in China is “yet another example of this government’s mismanagement of Canada-China relations.”
“Over the last six and a half years this government has been in office, it has not had representation in Beijing for more than a year. The government has had three ambassadors and had one resign in scandal – not good signs for one of Canada’s most fraught and significant foreign relationships,” he said.
Saint-Jacques added, it signals to other countries that Canada is failing to prioritize foreign policy and could lead to missed alliances.
He pointed to the recently announced Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative to help Pacific Island countries address climate change, security, and Chinese influence in the region.
The U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United Kingdom have signed on to the agreement.
“There were probably people in Washington discussing this who said what’s the value-added of having Canada? They are adrift at sea, ” he said.