Canada’s ambassador to Beijing says China is alienating foreign countries and injuring its goodwill abroad at a time when its diplomats have adopted a heavy-handed approach around the world. Dominic Barton is also backing a “rigorous review” of the World Health Organization and the spread of the deadly coronavirus – although not until the worst of the pandemic is over.

Mr. Barton told a private session of the Canadian International Council last week that China’s conduct is damaging its own global “soft power,” undermining its international influence and ability to persuade other countries to see things Beijing’s way.

Mr. Barton said China is accumulating “negative” soft power right now.

Thrust into nearly 18 months of frictions with the world’s largest authoritarian state, Canada has continued to push back against China in areas of disagreement, Mr. Barton said. “Canada’s voice will be heard loudly.” At the same time, Ottawa continues to seek opportunities in a country whose size and economic importance have made it impossible to ignore, he said.

His remarks are a bluntly worded departure from the diplomatic tone the Canadian government has adopted toward China, as it seeks masks from Chinese manufacturers and pushes for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Canadian businesses have also suffered a dramatic change in fortune, according to a new survey that showed widespread difficulties for those operating in China.

Mr. Barton declined to comment when asked to elaborate on his remarks.

But his statements last week, recounted to The Globe and Mail by three people who attended the session, are set against a global souring of relations between China and Western democracies.

In the United States, the White House and defence establishment have painted China as a strategic rival and systemic threat. Some of Europe’s biggest countries have erected new obstacles to Chinese investment, after Chinese companies began to buy national corporate jewels, while Beijing pursued a strategy of global dominance in key sectors.

At least six European countries have called in Chinese ambassadors to issue formal complaints after a campaign of critical commentary from Chinese embassies. The European Union’s own ambassador was criticized for allowing a Chinese newspaper to censor a joint statement.

In Australia, Beijing has been called a bully. This week, China halted imports of some Australian beef after the Australian Prime Minister called for an investigation into the World Health Organization and the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus in China, a step reminiscent of the economic coercion used against Canada after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Then there are the arrests of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, who continue to be held in Chinese detention centres with 24-hour lighting and few of the comforts afforded Ms. Meng, who lives in a multimillion-dollar house on bail.

For years, China has spent heavily on promoting its virtues, in part by building globe-spanning news networks that proliferate state-sanctioned narratives.

But China’s actions have instead given it a “negative” soft power, Mr. Barton said in the session. And he openly supported a “rigorous review” of the WHO and what happened with the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But, Mr. Barton said, such a review should not take place until after the current crisis has passed, calling out “armchair epidemiologists” for rushing to hasty judgment.

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, reached Tuesday, agreed that China’s increasingly aggressive diplomatic corps is alienating countries around the world, whether it’s threatening boycotts of Australia or pressing European countries for public gratitude for gifts of masks.

He said reports of discrimination and mistreatment of citizens from African countries in China has also seriously damaged Beijing’s image on a continent where Chinese companies have invested heavily over the past decade.

Mr. Saint-Jacques said in his opinion this erosion of China’s image abroad likely began with Beijing’s late 2018 arrest of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor – a move that was widely seen as retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest of Ms. Meng on a U.S. extradition request.

“Until that point, they had basically been given a free ride in attacking people,” he said, adding that the international coalition of support Canada marshalled to press China to release the two Canadians came as a surprise and affront to Beijing.

Mr. Saint-Jacques said this heavy-handed “wolf warrior” diplomacy – a media nickname taken from popular Chinese movies about soldiers defeating Western mercenaries – has even turned off European countries that were previously ambivalent.

Mr. Barton, the former global managing partner of consultancy McKinsey, praised China before becoming ambassador, saying he was “a bull” on the country, and that he “probably drank the Kool Aid there for too long.” He previously lived in Shanghai while working for McKinsey, which consulted for numerous Chinese state-run companies.

But his comments last week in a virtual meeting with the Canadian International Council, which calls itself Canada’s foreign relations council, were less effusive than in the past.

Canada’s position with China has grown more difficult, said Mr. Barton, who described several areas of disagreement. He pointed, for example, to China’s unilateral actions in the South China Sea, which is bisected by critical shipping channels and overlapping territorial claims. It’s critical to Canada that the South China Sea remain open for shipping, and Canada must better align with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on that, he said. Many ASEAN states have opposed China’s assertion of ownership over the South China Sea.

Canada is relatively unimportant to Chinese leadership, Mr. Barton said.

Still, he said, China is “not a country that can be avoided,” pointing to Canadian priorities that include securing the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, promoting human rights and multilateralism and pursuing opportunities in trade, investment, energy and interpersonal exchanges. He urged the creation of an entity he called a “China desk” that would span the Canadian government, civil society and the private sector.

He made his comments as a large number of Canadian corporations reported difficulties in China last year, with 43 per cent saying business was down in 2019, according to a recent survey from the Canada-China Business Council (CCBC). The problems for Canadian companies included travel delays and cancellations, difficulties in signing deals and expanding business and some decreased consumer demand.

Business groups have urged Canadian leadership to pursue smoother relations with China, and the CCBC on Tuesday said China’s quick economic restart after its pandemic lockdown provides opportunity.

“Now is the best time to come over here,” said Noah Fraser, the group’s managing director in China. ”The second-largest economy in the world is now humming at about 80-per-cent capacity.”

Few other places offer equivalent opportunity at the moment, he said. “If you plan on being in the black at the end of the year, China is a pretty good place to start.”

The Globe and Mail, May 12, 2020