OTTAWA (Reuters) - In an unprecedented move, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday said he had fired his ambassador to China, who prompted a political furor with comments about Huawei’s high-profile extradition case.
John McCallum had embarrassed Trudeau’s Liberal government by saying Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL] Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou could make a strong argument against being sent to the United States.
Opposition legislators and former ambassadors accused McCallum of unacceptable political interference in an affair which has badly damaged relations between Canada and China.
Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, was arrested in Vancouver last month over alleged violations of U.S. sanctions on Iran.
China subsequently detained two Canadian citizens on national security grounds. A Chinese court later retried a Canadian man who had been jailed for drugs smuggling and sentenced him to death.
“Last night I asked for and accepted John McCallum’s resignation as Canada’s ambassador to China,” Trudeau said in a statement that did not explain his reasons.
Veteran diplomats and experts told Reuters it was the first time a Canadian ambassador had ever been officially fired.
Trudeau said as recently as Thursday that he had no plans to replace McCallum, who apologized the same day for his remarks earlier in the week.
But the Toronto Star newspaper on Friday quoted the envoy as saying that if Washington dropped the extradition request “that would be great for Canada”. McCallum, 68, a long-time former Liberal cabinet minister, is not a trained diplomat.
Brock University professor Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who had served two postings in China, said McCallum’s comments on Meng possibly avoiding extradition had signaled to Beijing that its hard line tactics were working.
“He really made it untenable for the prime minister to sustain him (in his post) for any length of time and he had to go,” Burton said by telephone, suggesting Trudeau should quickly appoint a special envoy to handle the dispute.
Spokespeople for Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland declined to comment when asked about the dismissal.
Andrew Scheer, leader of the official opposition Conservative Party, said in a tweet that Trudeau “should have fired his ambassador the moment he interfered in this case” and accused the prime minister of weakness and indecision.
Polls show the Liberals have a slender lead over the Conservatives ahead of a federal election this October.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sandra Maler