OTTAWA—Dominic Barton, a corporate leader and special economic adviser to the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, has been named Canada’s new ambassador to China ahead of a fall federal election at a time when Ottawa-Beijing relations are at their worst in 50 years.
Barton, a senior partner and former global managing director of the international consulting firm McKinsey and Company whose profile was no longer on the company website, has corporate connections and experience in Asia that could be helpful.
But his Liberal ties may not necessarily stand up if the Conservative party, which vows a tougher approach to China, is elected to form government on Oct. 21.
Barton chaired Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s advisory council on economic growth which made sweeping recommendations for efforts to boost Canada’s productivity and growth.
Born in Uganda and a dual Ugandan and Canadian citizen, Barton is among Canada’s corporate who’s who. He’s advised government leaders around the world, and is no stranger to China.
He led McKinsey’s operations as chairman in Asia between 2004-2009, operating out of Shanghai. Before that he headed the firm’s office in South Korea for four years. He chaired Teck Resources and has written or co-authored books on leadership, financial crises, capitalism, and global markets.
In 2007 Barton wrote China Vignettes: An Inside Look at China. A Rhodes scholar who completed masters studies in economics at Oxford University, he serves as an adjunct professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
He broke the ice for Trudeau, introducing the new prime minister to business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, at the outset of the government’s mandate.
Trudeau had tried before to recruit him for the ambassadorial role in 2016 however the then-London-based global leader of McKinsey’s, reportedly could not be persuaded to go at the time.
Now, with two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, jailed in China on vague allegations of breaching state security laws, and two others on death row for drug charges, Trudeau is turning once again to Barton to try to thaw the diplomatic deep freeze between President Xi Jinping and his own government.
Barton would have to present his credentials to and be accepted by the Chinese government which is infuriated at Canada’s arrest of one of its corporate leaders, Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, on a U.S. extradition warrant.
China’s moves to arrest two Canadian men, including a former diplomat, and to slap death penalties on two others are seen as retaliation. Beijing has also blocked Canadian imports of pork and canola, citing sanitary inspection failures.
Trudeau continues to be cautious in his language, choosing to rally allies against what he calls Kovrig and Spavor’s “arbitrary detention” and calling such behaviour “unacceptable.” But he has further angered Beijing by enlisting a range of international allies to his side.
Each government has warned its citizens of travelling in the other country. And China has blasted Canada for its statements in support of Hong Kong citizens’ right to freedom of association and freedom of speech. Canada has cautioned China to use restraint, citing its concerns for 300,000 Canadian citizens living there.
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Barton, a director of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, would replace former ambassador John McCallum. A government source confirmed his appointment, first reported by CBC.
McCallum, previously a cabinet minister in Trudeau’s government, was forced to resign at Trudeau’s request after blurting the Liberal government hoped a U.S.-China trade deal would drop an extradition request for Meng Wanzhou and lead to the release of two detained Canadian men in Chinese jails. Since his resignation the post was temporarily filled by the deputy ambassador in Beijing, Jim Nickel.