Justin Trudeau heads off next week for his crucial first trip to China in a bid to reset relations with the rising Asian power. But in the aftermath, the ambassador's post in Beijing will likely sit empty for months. The Trudeau team had held out hope for a long time that it would be successful in courting Dominic Barton for the job.
Mr. Barton, the London-based managing director of global consulting giant McKinsey & Co., is already chair of Ottawa's advisory council on economic growth. But Mr. Trudeau's inner circle would prefer the high-powered consulting executive to serve his native land full-time, sources say. In particular, they wanted Mr. Barton, known as an Asia strategist, as envoy in China.
Some senior government officials still believe he will be the next ambassador. But Mr. Barton is now unlikely to fill the Beijing vacancy.
Current ambassador Guy Saint-Jacques agreed to stay through the PM's trip and the G20 summit in September, but he has served four years in Beijing and is to retire in October – so a new ambassador must be ready within months. And after repeated efforts to persuade him, Mr. Barton – who was elected by McKinsey partners to a third term that ends in 2018 and is spearheading firm reforms this fall – has indicated he is not ready to leave yet, according to sources.
Now Mr. Trudeau's government is seeking another candidate for Beijing – although the PM's inner circle hopes Mr. Barton will eventually take some kind of public-service appointment.
That means the immediate follow-up to Mr. Trudeau's inaugural China trip, with its trade and political fallout, will probably be temporarily handled in Beijing by a chargé d'affaires, or interim ambassador, perhaps Mr. Saint-Jacques's current deputy, Cindy Termorshuizen.
But the courting of Mr. Barton shows Mr. Trudeau is looking to send a signal to China – an indication he is looking outside the ranks of the foreign service to send a "political" appointee to the People's Republic of China for the first time, the kind often dispatched to the traditional first-tier diplomatic postings of Washington, London and Paris. In China, where an official's own power and connection to the leader is carefully judged, that might open doors.
Landing Mr. Barton, a man with global connections and expertise on Asia, would have been a particular coup.
At McKinsey, Mr. Barton heads a global firm known for whispering advice to national leaders and CEOs of major corporations. And before that, he led the firm's operations in South Korea, then across Asia, and he has written books and articles about China and built an impressive contact list. A decade ago, South Korea's then-president Lee Myung-bak named Mr. Barton chair of his international advisory council; in February, he was welcomed in Pakistan by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
When Mr. Trudeau travelled to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January to tout the merits of investing in Canada, Mr. Barton organized two breakfasts and a lunch so the new Prime Minister could meet major money managers and investment bankers such as BlackRock Inc. chief executive Larry Fink and UBS AG chair Axel Weber.
And although Mr. Barton is a part-time, volunteer adviser on economic growth, he has also influenced Mr. Trudeau's approach to China.
When Mr. Trudeau speaks publicly about China as he prepares to leave for the trip on Aug. 29, you can hear the themes Mr. Barton has expounded in articles, and in presentations to the Liberal cabinet: that the crucial trend is the rise of the middle class, and that business opportunities lie with China's consumers, and not just its industry.
Now, however, the government is seeking someone else to help build that strategy in Beijing. Some people have privately floated the names of a few former premiers – Ontario's Dalton McGuinty and PEI's Robert Ghiz – although one insider dismissed the names as more the list of Liberal usual suspects than the shortlist for China.
It is not easy to find a candidate who comes with experience of China and can carry the imprimatur of a high-level envoy from the leader. Stephen Harper tried in 2012, but former cabinet ministers such as David Emerson declined, and he turned again to the foreign service.
For prominent business executives such as Mr. Barton, the public service would mean a drastic pay cut. But he has become an influential figure in the Liberal government's thinking, and the Trudeau team plans to keep courting him to sign on full-time somewhere, even if it is not Beijing.