Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has selected an international business consultant with close ties to the Liberal Party and China’s economic elite as Canada’s next ambassador to Beijing.
The appointment of Dominic Barton on Wednesday, which has raised concerns among opposition parties and former diplomats, ends a months-long gap without a top Canadian diplomat to the world’s second-largest economy amid a damaging diplomatic dispute between the two countries.
Mr. Barton, previously head of McKinsey & Company, is taking over from John McCallum. The former Liberal cabinet minister was fired earlier this year after he told Chinese media that senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou had a strong case to fight a U.S. extradition request.
Mr. Barton has regularly counselled greater economic co-operation with China. Days after Ms. Meng was arrested last December in Vancouver, over U.S. allegations of violating economic sanctions against Iran, he told Bloomberg: “I think there remains lots of business to be done together. That’s what I think we should keep focused on.”
China reacted positively on Wednesday to the diplomatic move, saying it agreed to Mr. Barton’s appointment and that it "expects him to play a positive role in promoting the bilateral relations back to the right track,” the Chinese embassy in Ottawa said.
A prominent Canadian in China and in international economic affairs, the 56-year-old Mr. Barton had a long career at the consultancy company, where he served as global managing partner for nine years, ending in 2018.
He has close ties to the Prime Minister and his political adviser, Gerald Butts. Mr. Barton chaired the Advisory Council on Economic Growth for Finance Minister Bill Morneau, but has also worked directly for Chinese interests, as a member of the advisory board for the China Development Bank Capital Group and as an adjunct professor at Tsinghua University.
Mr. Barton recently took over the chairmanship of the board of Canada’s Teck Resources, a mining company. Chinese sovereign wealth fund China Investment Corp., responsible for managing part of China’s foreign-exchange reserves, owns more than 10.5 per cent of Teck.
“His years of experience in Asia, and the significant global economics expertise he has acquired over an impressive career, will make him a great choice to represent Canada – and Canadian interests – in China," Mr. Trudeau said in a statement.
But opposition critics and former Canadian diplomats question whether Mr. Barton is the right person for the job given his lack of foreign-service experience and at a time when Beijing has imprisoned Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and blocked billions of dollars of Canadian farm products in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Ms. Meng.
“This is putting someone into the job with no diplomatic experience at a time when Canada is in the midst of its greatest diplomatic crisis with China,” Conservative foreign-affairs critic Erin O’Toole said.
NDP MP Charlie Angus said Mr. Barton’s business interests in China and close ties to the Liberal Party should disqualify him as Canada’s envoy.
“He is too tied to the Liberal Party. He is too tied to Chinese financial interests and, meanwhile, we have Canadians in prison and farmers blocked from that market," Mr. Angus said. “We need a professional diplomat there and not someone who is a pal and insider of Chinese interests and the interests of the Liberal Party."
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Toronto that Mr. Barton will sever all his business ties and step away from any boards he served on to avoid any conflict of interest. She said there have been extensive conversations with him about the importance of human rights in China.
“One of the things that is really important in this complicated job is having someone doing this who can pick up the phone at any time and speak directly to the Prime Minister and speak directly to me − someone who has the personal connection and a personal connection built up over time,” she said.
China has recently nominated its own new ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, who served until recently as director-general of the Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.
Goldy Hyder, president of the Business Council of Canada, said the nomination of Mr. Barton provides a new opening for dialogue between the two countries, which have been locked in a deepening dispute since the arrest in Vancouver of Ms. Meng.
”If this is a crack and there’s an opportunity here, we need to put the focus on the two Michaels and what we need to do about restoring the normalcy of the trade relationship,” Mr. Hyder said.
Robert Malley, the president and CEO of Crisis Group, the international think tank that employed Mr. Kovrig, praised the appointment of Mr. Barton.
“Those of us @CrisisGroup who have been working for @MichaelKovrig’s prompt release know that Dominic Barton will make this his priority,” Mr. Malley tweeted. “The right man for the job.”
The Trudeau government tried to persuade Mr. Barton to become ambassador to China in 2016. Mr. McCallum was dispatched to Beijing instead.
At McKinsey, Mr. Barton led the company through several controversies − including in China. Last year, for example, the company held a retreat in China’s western Xinjiang region just six kilometres from the location of an internment camp that is believed to deliver vocational skills training and forced political indoctrination to ethnic Muslims.
David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said he has concerns about Mr. Barton’s qualifications as envoy given his company’s decision to hold the gathering in a Chinese province that is “ground zero for the country’s repression of its Muslim Uyghurs.”
McKinsey said the description of its work with authoritarian states “painted a misleading picture,” saying the firm has “a demonstrated record of making a positive difference in the countries where they live, and on behalf of their fellow citizens.”
In 2017, McKinsey also issued an apology for what it said were “errors of judgment” in its work with companies accused of corruption in South Africa.
Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, praised Mr. Barton’s appointment. “It would be hard to think of a better-qualified Canadian to take on such an important responsibility at such a critical time.
“Very few Canadians are so knowledgeable and respected internationally. He has a deep sense of public service, an outstanding intellect and enormous energy, all of which are going to be needed in the days ahead.”
Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who served in Beijing and now teaches political science at Brock University, said Mr. Barton is certainly more qualified than Mr. McCallum because he worked in Shanghai.
However, Mr. Burton said that Mr. Barton will likely echo the views of the Canadian business establishment, which is preoccupied with economic ties and less concerned about China’s record on human rights.
“He is well-connected to the business establishment and the large corporations who have a lot of influence over China policy and I don’t think that he would be supportive of Canada becoming more assertive in ensuring that Canadian values inform how we interact with China on human rights and democracy and the aspirations of the Chinese people to more freedom,” he said.
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