Liberal government’s ‘almost humiliating’ posture toward China a missed opportunity: former top diplomat

ICYMI. While David Mulroney is the more “hardline” of the two, the fundamental message from Guy Saint-Jacques is the same:

Two former diplomats are warning that the Liberal government’s recent silence on China could reinforce the country’s increasingly belligerent actions on the world stage, amid concerns Chinese officials actively misled the World Health Organization during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

David Mulroney, who served as Canadian ambassador to China in Beijing between 2009 and 2012, said Ottawa’s “almost humiliating” posture toward China in recent weeks was a missed opportunity to acknowledge the country’s shortcomings during the viral outbreak.

China has drawn criticism for providing potentially faulty information to the WHO, particularly in the first weeks of the spread of COVID-19, which in turn left world leaders largely ill-prepared for the virus.

Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada’s envoy to China from 2012 to 2016, said leaders in Canada and elsewhere need to call for a full investigation of the WHO after it uncritically relayed information from Beijing observers claim could be inaccurate.

He also denounced recent “reprehensible” comments by Health Minister Patty Hajdu, who dismissed claims about faulty Chinese reporting as “conspiracy theories” that originated “on the Internet.”

Mulroney said the recent silence by Ottawa is part of a long-standing instinct to gloss over Chinese aggressions, largely due to its tendency to retaliate and its growing economic heft. But an unwillingness to acknowledge even the possibility of Chinese misdeeds could sow public distrust.

“Ottawa can’t seem to shake this tendency to flatter,” he said in an interview with the National Post.

“I’m not suggesting that we need to insult China or provoke a quarrel. We should simply be guided by the facts. And right now the facts argue for the case that China was delinquent, that it wasn’t transparent enough. That’s not a conspiracy theory.”

“When you start acknowledging the truth, then positive and corrective action is possible. As long as you’re in denial, there’s no hope of action that will ameliorate the situation. This is a tremendous missed opportunity and it’s not too late for the government to slowly turn the ship around,” Mulroney said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has batted away repeated questions about the WHO this week, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he would withdraw funding from the organization.

Then on Thursday, Trudeau came closer to acknowledging some of the criticisms of China and the WHO, saying “there have been questions asked” about the organization, “but at the same time it is really important that we stay coordinated as we move through this.”

Both former ambassadors said Trump’s threat to immediately pull funding from the WHO would needlessly and dangerously cripple the organization at a critical time.

Saint-Jacques, who acknowledged that Ottawa is in a “delicate” position with regards to China, said world leaders should call for a thorough review of the WHO’s handling of the pandemic once it is under control.

“You have to draw a line,” Saint-Jacques said. “You have to stop such behaviour. You have to acknowledge that if you dealt with this issue with a lot more transparency we would have avoided an international crisis that has led to one of the greatest recessions of our times.”

The Trudeau government has repeatedly been forced to navigate tense relations with China, particularly after Canadian authorities arrested the chief financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies in 2018, at the request of the U.S.

An attempt by Trudeau early in his leadership to forge a free trade deal with the country quickly evaporated, after Chinese officials made it clear that they were disinterested in certain “progressive” elements put forward by Canada, including proposals around environmental policy and gender-based analysis.

“Cabinet did not fully realize what I call the dark side of China,” Saint-Jacques said of the trade mission.

Criticism of the WHO began in earnest on Jan. 14, when Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the organization, tweeted a message nearly identical to that of the Chinese government, saying researchers “have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the coronavirus.

By Jan. 20 Chinese officials finally confirmed that the virus could indeed spread through human contact, and shut down the city of Wuhan, where the virus originated. Another week passed before the WHO declared a public health emergency.

On Feb. 6, weeks after the body had designated a public health emergency, the organization issued a press release calling on countries to avoid imposing travel bans or “medically unnecessary restrictions” against China, saying such moves could “fuel racism” against the country.

Those directives were absorbed by national governments around the world, who were in turn caught off guard by the scope and nature of COVID-19.

The WHO’s director-general has dismissed much of the criticism of his organization as unnecessary “politicization” of the issue, but he has said the virus exposed some shortcomings at the United Nations group.

“No doubt, areas for improvement will be identified and there will be lessons for all of us to learn. But for now, our focus — my focus — is on stopping this virus and saving lives.”

Source: Liberal government’s ‘almost humiliating’ posture toward China a missed opportunity: former top diplomat

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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