It is hard to conceive of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau not reappointing Chrystia Freeland as his foreign minister. Freeland is regarded as a capable minister in a government with few of them.
Nevertheless, Ottawa being Ottawa, there have been rumours that Trudeau may be considering giving Freeland a bigger portfolio.
The only conceivably more prestigious department to run would be finance. Freeland has been a business reporter and columnist at different times during her years as a journalist, so that would make some sense. Following such a path might also eventually make her a stronger candidate to succeed Trudeau as leader of the Liberal Party, a job which everyone believes she wants to get one day. But much of Freeland’s life has been spent outside Canada and she appears to be far more interested in foreign affairs today than in domestic policy or in tackling a budget that will almost certainly add many billions of dollars to the national debt.
Trudeau’s reputation as the most progressive leader in the world has taken a strong hit because of blackface, his treatment of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, his Indian costume drama and the view in Delhi that he has a soft spot for Khalistani or Sikh separatists, and his leaving the leaders of Japan and Australia in the lurch when he decided at the last minute not to show up at a meeting with them in Vietnam without letting them know he was not coming. In fact, criticism of Trudeau’s shortcomings have arguably been sharper in the U.S. and overseas than at home.
Meanwhile, the prime minister’s MP for University-Rosedale continues to have a glowing reputation among influential global progressives that he should not ignore. Both Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and diplomat, and Michael McFaul, a well known American academic and former ambassador to Russia, congratulated her on her re-election.
Freeland has Ukrainian roots and her deep abiding foreign interest is in Ukraine and Russia, where she apparently remains persona non grata because of her strong public support for Kyiv. Still, her support for a cause that she has been part of all her adult life has not been so great that Canada has been willing to send arms to Ukraine to defend itself from Russia proxies who, far from the world’s gaze, continue to wage a bloody low-level war in the northeast of the country.
Though the jury is still out on whether the adjustments that have been made to NAFTA will actually favour Canada, Freeland has received most of the credit for getting a deal done with the notoriously obstreperous Trump administration. But as the president and others in his regime have made plain that as a result of their dealings with Freeland during NAFTA II talks, they are not fans of hers. This could at some point cause difficulties for Canada in other areas of the bilateral relationship.
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As important as maintaining good Can-Am relations are and will be for years to come, the biggest test for any Canadian government or foreign minister going forward will be how to manage the immense trade and security challenges posed by China. As the Meng Wangzhou/Huawei bank and wire fraud extradition case and the subsequent kidnapping 11 months ago of two Canadians by the Chinese government and sanctions on Canadian canola and meat imports have demonstrated, China’s dictatorship will play dirty games to try to get its way.
Canada has a weak hand because of the widespread view that it needs trade with China more than China needs trade with it. Canada is also hamstrung by the sometimes inconvenient fact that it is a democracy with a completely different moral outlook and legal system than China and has not had a strong policy on China or, for that matter, on many international issues.
It is hard to see how Canada can cave to China on Meng, but it could try to improve relations with Chairman Xi Jinping by doing what the United Kingdom is seriously considering — allowing Huawei to sell its 5G cell phone technology there. However, any concessions Canada makes on the importation of Huawei 5G technology could, in turn, seriously complicate Ottawa’s intimate security relationship with Washington.
China has hardly been watching from the sidelines lately. China’s new ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, has been out and about in Ottawa this month meeting prominent business leaders who badly want a thaw in relations between the two countries. Cong will find that there is also a huge and influential pro-China faction in Global Affairs Canada. Their views on the need to embrace China are similar to those of Dominic Barton, Canada’s new ambassador in Beijing and a businessman who has not yet said anything publicly but has often worked closely with senior Chinese political and business leaders and has been a strong advocate for greater trade with China.
Progressives they may claim to be, but Trudeau and Freeland have said little about the detention of as many as 1 million Muslim Uighurs in political reeducation camps in eastern China. Nor have they talked much about the sometimes violent democratic protests in Hong Kong.
Still, Freeland has taken a tougher line on some aspects of Canada’s relations with China. On Freeland’s watch, Canada has sent Canadian warships through international waters that Beijing claims in the South China Sea, Strait of Taiwan and East China Sea and will likely do so at least twice a year for the foreseeable future.
Canada has also recently sent senior military officers to meetings in Asia to discuss closer military cooperation with countries such as Japan and Australia. There have also been small hints that Canada will be more open to dealing with Taiwan.
It is a given that Freeland will be preoccupied by the U.S., Russia and China files if she continues as the minister of foreign affairs. There may also be a trade deal to negotiate with the United Kingdom if its departure from the European Community finally happens this winter.
Something else to hope for is that Freeland will try to improve Canada’s badly strained relations with India, which is a counterpoint to China and should be a natural friend. Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended an olive branch when he warmly congratulated Trudeau on his Oct. 21 victory and spoke of the country’s shared democratic values.
For all these reasons, for continuity’s sake and because she may be able to burnish Trudeau’s damaged reputation overseas, it is difficult to imagine that Chrystia Freeland will not have her pick of ministries and that she will tell Prime Minister Trudeau that she wants to stay where she is at.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas