Canada’s outgoing ambassador to China will take up a post as chairman with Australian multinational mining corporation Rio Tinto, the company announced on Dec. 19.
Dominic Barton will succeed Simon Thompson as Rio Tinto’s chair in 2022. He will first join Rio Tinto’s board on April 4 and be appointed to the role of chair following the company’s annual general meeting on May 5, according to a statement issued on Dec. 20.
In the statement, Barton said he is “excited” to return to the private sector after his two-year assignment as Canada’s ambassador to China.
“I am truly looking forward to working with Dominic in our effort to continue to strengthen Rio Tinto, in particular drawing on his wealth of experience across Asia in both a business and diplomatic capacity,” Jakob Stausholm, Rio Tinto chief executive, said in the statement.
Prior to his appointment as ambassador, Barton spent over 30 years at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, including nine years as its global managing partner from 2009 to 2018.
During that period, the firm sparked controversy for advising pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma on ways to increase sales of oxycontin, a highly addictive prescription pain medicine that contains an opioid. Barton’s role in and knowledge of the issue has also been questioned.
While serving as ambassador to China, Barton drew criticism for championing closer Canada-China ties despite Beijing’s arbitrary detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive of Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
Following the release of the two men in September, Barton called for a rekindling of the Canada-China relationship in an exclusive interview with the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda mouthpiece Global Times, saying that the “major emotional issue is now off the table.”
Barton established extensive experience and relationships in China while at McKinsey, acting as the Asia chairman from 2004 to 2009 at the company’s base in Shanghai. He is also an adjunct professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Rio Tinto’s China Investments
China accounts for more than half of Rio Tinto’s revenue, according to the company’s latest 2020 annual report, supplying the world’s second-largest economy with its high demand for iron ore, a steel-making ingredient essential to China’s infrastructure push.
In 2020, Rio Tinto committed $10 million to extend its partnership with China’s state-owned iron and steel company China Baowu Steel Group, and Tsinghua University, to establish a low-carbon raw materials preparation research and development centre. It also committed another $4.5 million to support research projects at the Tsinghua-Rio Tinto Joint Research Centre over the coming years.
Thompson, who served as chair of Rio Tinto for four years and as a non-executive director since 2014, stepped down over the company’s destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia in May 2020.
Barton is set to leave his role as ambassador at the end of the year. As Rio Tinto’s chairman, he will be tasked with managing the rising tensions between Canberra and Beijing, which has slapped tariffs on Australian wine and barley, as well as severely limiting imports of coal.
He will likely help with several of the company’s growth projects, including the Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold project in Mongolia and a $2.4 billion Jadar lithium mine project in Serbia.
Issac Teo and Reuters contributed to this report.