Canada’s ambassador to China said Thursday he misspoke and regrets saying the extradition of a Chinese executive to the U.S. “would not be a happy outcome.”
Ambassador John McCallum said earlier this week in a 40-minute news conference with Chinese media in the Toronto area that Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou has a strong case to avoid extradition, and he suggested the case is politically motivated.
The remarks surprised many and fueled speculation that Canada might be trying to send a signal to China to reduce tensions.
But McCallum walked back the comments on Thursday.
“I regret that my comments with respect to the legal proceedings of Ms. Meng have created confusion. I misspoke,” McCallum said in a statement.
“These comments do not accurately represent my position on this issue. As the government has consistently made clear, there has been no political involvement in this process.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier dismissed calls to fire McCallum. Opposition Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said Trudeau should fire McCallum because his remarks raise concerns about the politicization of the Meng case.
Trudeau smiled when asked about removing McCallum, and said it wouldn’t do anything to help two Canadians arrested by China in what many consider retaliation for the Meng arrest.
“Making a change would not help release those Canadians a day sooner,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau didn’t say whether he agrees with McCallum, a former minister in his Cabinet known for blunt talk.
Canada arrested the daughter of Huawei’s founder at the request of the U.S. on Dec. 1. Meng is wanted on fraud charges that she misled banks about the company’s business dealings in Iran.
McCallum didn’t invite major English-speaking media to his press conference in Markham, Ontario, a district he once represented and one with a large Chinese-Canadian constituency.
The Meng case has severely damaged Beijing’s relations with Ottawa. China arrested former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor on Dec. 10 in an apparent attempt to pressure Canada to release Meng, the chief financial officer of Huawei. A Chinese court also sentenced a Canadian to death in a sudden retrial of a drug case, overturning a 15-year prison term handed down earlier.
China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said her government has “noted the relevant remarks by Ambassador McCallum” and reiterated its demand that Meng be released.
Huawei has close ties to China’s military and is considered one of the country’s most successful international enterprises, operating in the high-tech sphere where China hopes to establish dominance.
Andrew MacDougall, a former spokesman for Canada’s previous conservative prime minister, didn’t buy McCallum’s excuse.
“McCallum’s comments weren’t a slip of the tongue. They were delivered — at length, and deliberately — to a specific audience,” MacDougall tweeted.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said McCallum’s statement does not represent the views of the government.
“When he met with the Chinese language media he ad-libbed. He should have shown more restraint,” he said. Saint-Jacques said the envoy should have known not to offer any comments about a legal issue.
“It undermines the principle that Canada is a country that is governed by the rule of law,” he said. “It makes the Chinese believe that this is all political so it’s just a matter for them to put more pressure on Canada.”
He called the remarks unfortunate but said it would be a mistake to replace McCallum because the process would take too much time and relations are at a critical point.
“With the tensions in the relationship right now the Chinese could sit on the request,” Saint-Jacques said. “Mr. McCallum should continue but I would expect he won’t be making public comments for a while.”