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Politics New China envoy Dominic Barton shows Trudeau’s intent to re-engage Beijing

Dominic Barton is the catch that Justin Trudeau wanted to get last time. Now he’s going to China after times have changed.

Two Canadians are in Chinese jails, and Beijing’s official mouthpieces regularly fire derisive and bullying shots at Canada. Mr. Trudeau’s tone in dealings with China has gotten tougher. So the fact that Mr. Barton, a silver-tongued charmer with extensive contacts in Asia, is being sent to Beijing as Canada’s ambassador says something.

Mr. Barton is a believer in the importance of engagement with China, so it’s pretty clear he is being sent there to try to re-engage. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is calling for a strategic pullback from China, arguing Canada needs to accept that China doesn’t share our interests, and look to develop trade elsewhere. The appointment of Mr. Barton, only days before the start of an election campaign, is a sign that Mr. Trudeau believes Canada can’t afford to do that.

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If you don’t know Mr. Barton’s name, many of the world’s elite do. Until 2018, he was the managing partner of global management-consulting firm McKinsey & Co. He knows movers and shakers, and he is one. He can get meetings with CEOs and heads of government. He was at one time McKinsey’s Asia chairman, based in Shanghai. He has contacts in China that Canadian diplomats don’t. He is, by any objective human-resources standard, a catch.

In 2016, Mr. Trudeau’s team courted Mr. Barton to serve as Canada’s ambassador to China. They didn’t land him then – he wanted to finish his third term as head of McKinsey – and settled for naming a cabinet minister, John McCallum, as a high-profile envoy.

That didn’t end well. More generally, Canada’s relationship with China has gone from hopeful to horrible. Two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, are imprisoned in transparent retaliation for the arrest, on a U.S. extradition request, of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. China has blocked imports of Canadian canola and meat.

So this time, Mr. Barton was offered a very different job.

Maybe he’s going to China now because there’s an opening and he is now available. Mr. Barton is plugged into the Trudeau circle, notably with the PM’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts. He served as chairman of the Liberal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which recommended McKinsey-style big ideas: a major expansion of immigration; a massive investment in mid-career retraining; and so on.

But in 2019, Mr. Barton’s appointment is also a symbol of Mr. Trudeau’s approach to China. He isn’t trying to disengage. He is trying to re-engage.

Mr. Barton will only be an ambassador, of course, but it is hard to imagine he’d be going to China simply to manage the current chill. He is a believer that Asia, notably China, is the major growth engine of the global economy and that Canada has to hitch its wagon to that growth. He rose to the top job at McKinsey based on his track record in building lucrative business relationships in Asia. You can bet that his intention is to get the Chinese and Canadian governments talking again, to get Beijing to put the dispute in the past and to expand trade.

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Sending an envoy to Beijing with that agenda is more controversial now than it was three years ago. Beijing has made clear, in brutish terms, what it will do to Canadians when it is displeased.

In a policy speech two weeks ago, Mr. Trudeau said his government’s response will be firm professionalism. “We do not escalate, but we do not back down,” he said. Mr. Barton’s appointment signals the Liberal policy is to mend fences.

Relations with China won’t dominate the coming election campaign, but still, they are likely more of an issue than ever before. China is asserting its power as a rising superpower and Canadians can’t help but notice. There are now two very different approaches to China. Mr. Scheer argues the current crisis shows Canada must keep China at a distance, insulated from its unfriendly influence. Mr. Trudeau, by sending Mr. Barton, is signalling he believes there’s a way to get past it.

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