Diplomatic posts in China struggling to keep up with Canada’s new priorities

Canada-China relations may be warming but Canada’s diplomatic missions in the country are already overheated.

OTTAWA — Canada-China relations may be warming but Canada’s diplomatic missions in the country are already overheated.

A year after Ottawa signalled a re-energized approach to diplomatic ties with the country, evaluations of Canada’s embassy in Beijing and the consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing suggest bureaucrats were struggling to keep pace with demands on their services.

Formal links between Canada and China have been growing stronger since 2005, when Chinese President Hu Jintao and former prime minister Paul Martin agreed to start regular bilateral talks. But back in 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper irritated the Chinese government by meeting with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Harper’s visit to China in 2009 rebooted the connection. And this week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird wrapped up a four-day visit of his own, saying he wants to continue to build it.

But among the things the diplomatic missions appear to need to do that is new buildings. They’re bursting at the seams and a long-term approach is needed, the Beijing report by Canadian officials said.

“Each of the chanceries is at capacity and, in the case of Beijing, the addition of 36 full time equivalents since 2002 has been accommodated by short-term solutions that have negatively impacted (International Business Development) program staff’s work environment and a client’s image of Canada,” the report said.

It and the evaluation of the other posts were carried out in March 2010, but the reports were only posted publicly this month.

They found that all of the diplomatic offices were struggling to translate Ottawa’s goals into reality, both individually and as a network of embassies and consulates in the country.

“There is also a need to more clearly define the (Political Economic Relations and Public Affairs) dimension of the China Network approach, and to translate high level objectives into concrete and achievable objectives,” said the evaluation of the Shanghai consulate.

Activities at the consulate were largely reactive, the evaluation found, and there’s not enough forward planning.

Altogether, the evaluations of the Chinese positions made over 200 recommendations. More than half have already been acted upon, according to the official government response contained in the reports. The remainder are expected to be implemented.

The Harper government has been expanding relations with China since 2006, Chris Day, a spokesman for Baird, said in an email.

“Recently, we opened six new trade offices and expanded our presence in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.”

Canadian diplomats based in China are doing a great job advancing Canada’s interests, he said.

Canada’s embassies and missions are subject to regular inspections, carried out by the Department of Foreign Affairs. There is no set schedule. The last time the Chinese posts were reviewed was in 2002. Canada also has six trade offices in the country.

Some of the stresses faced in China relate to dealing with the Chinese bureaucracy itself, particularly when it comes to staffing.

The evaluations noted the process to engage local staff is different in each province, as are salaries for each labour environment. Some missions have lost staff because workers aren’t getting paid as much as those in other consulates.

Canadian embassies and consulates around the world have been struggling with slashed budgets for the last three years. In the summer of 2009, they were told their program budgets would be cut by 50 per cent. They were told the year earlier that they needed to make 25 per cent cuts.

Hospitality budgets are among those being squeezed the most. In Washington, D.C. this year it led to Canadians being told they couldn’t come to the annual July 1 party at the embassy.

But in China it appeared lavish parties weren’t the problem. The evaluations suggested that diplomats in China weren’t spending the money as intended.

“Most of the hospitality funds have been used by the (program manager) to support high-level Canadian visitors,” said the Beijing report.

“For some of the functions, no local contacts were invited.”