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Opinion Dominic Barton may make a good ambassador to China. He needs to be a good hostage negotiator, too

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada.

It has been evident for months that what Canada needs in its embassy in Beijing is not a new ambassador, but a hostage negotiator.

Ottawa and Beijing are deadlocked in the most intense crisis in relations since mutual diplomatic recognition almost 50 years ago.

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At the core of the crisis is Beijing taking two Canadians hostage in retaliation for the arrest in Vancouver in early December of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer and daughter of the founder of Huawei Technologies, on an extradition warrant issued by the United States’ Department of Justice.

Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor are being subjected to sleep deprivation, allowed only one consular visit a month and have been charged with espionage endangering the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

But since then the crisis has spiralled into an economic war, with Beijing imposing sanctions on the importation of grains and meat and threatening further measures unless the case against Ms. Meng is dropped. To its credit, the government has supported the Canadian values of the rule of law and an independent judiciary, despite much pressure from those in the political and business communities to let her go.

The crisis has pulled into sharp focus the fundamental incompatibility of the values held by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Canada. And it is raising very legitimate questions, both about the overly optimistic views of the relationship held by a succession of Canadian governments in the past, and the extent of the ties Canada should pursue with the PRC in the future.

None of those broader questions can be addressed, however, until the issue of the two Michaels is resolved. With an election coming next month and the precampaign already well under way, as long as the two Michaels are still being held the Liberals will be vulnerable to charges that they are soft on the CCP.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland seem to believe they have found the man to break the deadlock in Dominic Barton, the former global managing partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

They may be right. McKinsey has a long history of advising some of the CCP’s top state-owned companies, and Mr. Barton himself lived in Shanghai from 2004 to 2009 when he was the company’s Asia chairman. In that position, he became acquainted with several leading figures in the CCP regime. They may be willing to take his calls now, although they have refused point blank to talk to Canadian officials while Ms. Meng is still facing extradition.

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Mr. Barton’s added credentials as a hostage negotiator are that he is close to both Ms. Freeland and Mr. Trudeau. Ms. Freeland and Mr. Barton share the fellowship of both having been Rhodes Scholars, and she had dealings with him as a business reporter before she turned to politics.

For Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Barton has helped shape government economic policy as chair of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s advisory council on economic growth.

It is a measure of how much Ms. Freeland and Mr. Trudeau have invested in Mr. Barton’s mission that they seem to have taken the unusual step of testing whether he is acceptable to Beijing before finalizing the appointment. The CBC is reporting that Ms. Freeland discussed the appointment with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Bangkok in August.

But it is clear that while Mr. Barton may be an acceptable negotiator for both sides, this is just the beginning of what is likely to be a long and difficult process.

On Thursday, Beijing set out its view of the initial obstacles to negotiations. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters that responsibility for the crisis “lies entirely on the Canadian side.” For the matter to be resolved, Canada should “reflect on its mistakes” and release Ms. Meng immediately.

Releasing Ms. Meng is thus being held out as a precondition for talks. But it would be both unforgivable and dangerous for Canada’s reputation to give into this bullying. Now is the moment for Ottawa to stick resolutely to respect for the rule of law and an independent judiciary, and to accept that future relations with the CCP cannot be what they have been in the past.

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