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Dominic Barton speaks at an Asia Business Leaders Advisory Council meeting in Hong Kong in February, 2019.Theodore Kaye/The Associated Press

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

China is blaming the Trudeau government for soured relations with Canada, and urging Ottawa to “reflect on its mistakes” – a sharp rebuke from Beijing that coincides with the appointment of a new Canadian ambassador who will press for the release of two detained Canadians.

The Chinese government offered no sign of new warmth toward Canada on Thursday, hours after Ottawa said it would dispatch to Beijing a new ambassador who has ties with China’s elite.

“Relations between China and Canada have encountered serious difficulties, and the responsibility lies entirely with the Canadian side,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized China’s use of arbitrary detentions, which, he said, is often intended to achieve the Chinese government’s goals.

Mr. Geng confirmed that China has approved former McKinsey & Co. global managing director Dominic Barton as Canada’s top envoy to China, saying Beijing hopes he can help stabilize the cross-Pacific relationship. That relationship is in its worst state since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.

But he showed no sign of a changed tone from Beijing, urging Canada to “reflect on its mistakes” and immediately release Meng Wanzhou. The arrest of the Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. executive in Vancouver last December set in motion a series of hostile actions, including the arrest in China of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

At a livestreamed event with Toronto Star journalists later in the day, Mr. Trudeau said: “Using arbitrary detention as a tool to achieve political goals, international or domestic, is something that is of concern not just to Canada but to all our allies, who have been highlighting that this is not acceptable behaviour in the international community because they are all worried about China engaging in the same kinds of pressure tactics with them.”

The reaction from Beijing, and Ottawa’s focus on arbitrary detentions, underscored the difficulty facing Mr. Barton. His success as ambassador will depend, in part, on his ability to secure the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor and revitalize Canada’s trade ties with the world’s second-largest economy after Beijing blocked imports of some key Canadian agricultural goods.

Some Canadian corporate leaders welcomed the nomination of Mr. Barton, a globe-trotting consultancy chieftain who has occupied some of the world’s most exclusive business circles – a trusted confidant of the Trudeau government who also understands the intricacies of working in China.

Business and political leaders have long bemoaned Canada’s comparatively anemic economic relationship with China, relative to other allies and democratic powers.

Mr. Barton has lived in Shanghai, and his experience in China has given him rarefied access. McKinsey has worked for large numbers of China’s top state-owned entities. Mr. Barton has rubbed shoulders with the country’s wealthiest and most powerful at the prestigious China Development Forum.

He has been a member of the advisory board of Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, whose honorary members include Wang Qishan, one of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s most trusted lieutenants. The board holds annual meetings with top members of the Chinese political establishment including, in 2013, Mr. Xi himself. State media reports do not make clear which meetings Mr. Barton attended.

But the leaders he has met individually include Chen Jining, a former minister for environmental protection and now Beijing mayor, and Zhou Zhongshu, president of China Minmetals Group, the biggest metal and minerals trader in the country.

That experience has given him insight into Chinese power structures unmatched by any previous Canadian envoy to China. It has also offered him personal contact with corporate leaders who have access to enough resources to substantially elevate trade between Canada and China.

Yet it’s not clear how much that experience will benefit Mr. Barton as ambassador in a country that is strictly hierarchical, and often reserves access to top leaders for those considered equivalent in rank. Tensions between Canada and China may also obligate Mr. Barton to deliver critical messages.

“The first time that he has instructions to say things that displease the Chinese leadership – which, if Canada is sticking to its national interest, will happen pretty quickly – I think the value of that prior access is going to diminish,” said Rory Medcalf, a former Australian diplomat and intelligence analyst who is head of the National Security College at Australian National University.

Dispatching diplomats who Beijing perceives as friendly is a risk for Western democracies, he said.

“If in any way the Chinese feel that they are now going to have someone who is in fact more sympathetic to a business-at-all-costs attitude, then obviously they will see an opportunity there to dilute Canada’s independence on security issues – and to break the solidarity between Canada and other democracies on security issues,” he said.

In Hong Kong, too, the appointment of a corporate leader to Beijing raised concern.

“Somebody well-versed in doing business with China can be an advantage, provided you do not allow business interests to compromise your stance as regards defending Canadian values,” said Anson Chan, a former chief secretary in Hong Kong who has criticized China’s Communist rulers.

Cambell Clark: New China envoy Dominic Barton shows Trudeau’s intent to re-engage Beijing

She has a dim view of the posture corporate leaders have tended to adopt toward China. “In order to make money, business people have been quite willing to close their eyes to some of the other things going on [in China] that they would not in normal circumstances accept from any other country,” she said.

At the same time, critics question whether Mr. Barton’s selection as ambassador signals a new desire by Ottawa to emphasize trade over other priorities, such as advocacy on behalf of Muslims in western China who have been placed in internment camps for political indoctrination and skills training.

“I see this as a victory for Beijing and capitulation on the part of the Canadian government,” said J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

On Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Mr. Barton will sever all corporate ties, and has engaged in extensive discussions of human rights in China.

Ms. Freeland said she and Mr. Barton met on Wednesday, and the plight of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor was the first thing they discussed. She said that in regular consular visits, Canadian diplomats tell the two men, among other things, about the government’s efforts to secure their release. She said that is a “source of solace” for them.

A person who answered Mr. Barton’s e-mail at McKinsey said he is not accepting media interviews.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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