Canada's Ambassador to China is set to leave his post, ending a transformative era in bilateral relations with the Asian economic superpower and tasking the Harper government with a major challenge to appoint a successor able to build on those strong diplomatic gains.
David Mulroney will leave the Canadian embassy in Beijing before the end of the summer, according to several sources familiar with the matter.
Mr. Mulroney's exit comes at a critical juncture in Sino-Canadian relations, and the government's choice of his replacement will be heavily scrutinized in both Ottawa and Beijing. As China's political and economic importance has increased, international relations experts and academics have suggested that the job be a political appointment similar to that of Canada's ambassador to the United States, rather than one drawn from the diplomatic ranks.
A political appointee would underscore the government's new-found belief in the significance of relations with the world's most populous country that also boasts the second-largest economy.
It is unclear who will replace Mr. Mulroney in what is now considered Canada's most high-profile and challenging diplomatic posting behind that of the ambassador to the U.S. China is Canada's second largest trading partner and has invested more than $16-billion in Canadian resource projects during the past two years.
Mr. Mulroney assumed the ambassadorship in the summer of 2009 and his tenure in Beijing will be considered relatively short. Diplomatic postings are generally held for 3 to 5 years.
A public servant and diplomat for most of his career, Mr. Mulroney speaks Mandarin and is known for his quiet demeanour, steely resolve and strong leadership skills. He has overseen a dramatic change in Canada's interactions with China. The early years of Stephen Harper's government were marked by frosty relations that led to lost trade opportunities and weakening economic ties. At the time, Ottawa publicly condemned China's human rights record and made the Dalai Lama an honorary Canadian citizen, angering the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Mr. Mulroney's tenure coincided with an abrupt about-face in the government's attitude toward China that has been marked by two official visits by Mr. Harper and the signing of key economic agreements.
Preceding Mr. Mulroney's posting, the Harper government viewed China as a "godless, totalitarian enemy," said Paul Evans, director of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia.
Now, foreign minister John Baird calls China a friend, a strategic partner and an ally. "No one has been more significant in paving the foundation for a deeper and more comprehensive relationship with China than David Mulroney," said Mr. Evans, whose academic work has focused on Canada's relations with China.
Finding a suitable replacement, who will be able to navigate and enhance Chinese relations, will not be easy.
"It's a real problem. … It's got to be someone who has the background and the [foreign service]rank and who has the personal confidence of the government, because of how important the posting is," said one government source who asked not to be named.
There are few obvious candidates, the source said, but Mr. Mulroney's successor will certainly inherit a much improved relationship. "I think he's put things on a really good footing. I think the next person has a really good start to work from."
While Mr. Mulroney has been ambassador, energy has become a centrepiece of Canada's relationship with China, which is eager to secure new sources of oil and gas to fuel its rapidly expanding economy.
As the U.S. economy falters, Mr. Harper has turned to China as a possible alternative export market. His government has championed the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, the controversial project which would allow bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to be shipped directly to Asia.
Before his stint in Beijing, Mr. Mulroney worked in the privy council office as the deputy minister of the Afghanistan Task Force. In that role, he found himself at the centre of controversy amid allegations that the government ignored warnings from diplomat Richard Colvin that detainees being transferred to Afghan jails would be tortured.
Sources said Mr. Mulroney is retiring at age 57, and with more than 30 years of service, he'll receive his full pension. After eight years of highly sensitive and stressful postings in Kabul and Beijing, they say, he would now likely seek an academic or other non-government post. "He's been doing this 31 years and he's ready to do something different," said a source in Beijing who is close to Mr. Mulroney and familiar with his plans.