Dominic Barton is like the Liberal government’s silver bullet. The newly appointed ambassador to China has his hands full trying to mend a relationship that’s at its nadir. Following the Liberals’ rise to power in late 2015, he was brought in to devise a plan to revive economic growth in Canada.
Now his job is to represent Canadian interests in China. Those interests begin with securing the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who have been detained since last December, shortly after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Barton’s resume includes extensive experience and relationships in China, where he was once based in Shanghai as the Asia chairman of management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. He is also an adjunct professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
But fundamentally, Barton’s role is inexorably linked to Meng’s detention in Canada, said Carleton University associate professor of Asian history Jacob Kovalio.
As Meng’s extradition hearing follows its course in the Canadian judiciary system, Barton, in the meantime, can lay the groundwork to try and appease Beijing, particularly if she is extradited south of the border.
“That is the only thing I see behind the sudden announcement behind the nomination of Mr. Barton to be our ambassador to China,” Kovalio said. “Once the Meng Wanzhou affair is behind us, Mr. Barton’s role there would not be very important.”
McKinsey has had a very deep relationship with China’s ruling communist regime, and Barton downplayed widespread concerns about the regime’s Belt and Road Initiative—a sprawling infrastructure project to build up China’s influence in the regions it invades, from East Asia to Europe and Africa.
The New York Times laid bare how McKinsey has been assisting authoritarian regimes, like China’s, to gain global influence even at the expense of the United States.
McKinsey is so highly regarded in China that the country’s smartest minds dream of working there, and the firm’s partners have even sat in on Communist Party meetings at companies.
Barton served on the board of the China Development Bank, one of the two biggest financiers of the Belt and Road Initiative. That is an example of the kinds of ties to Chinese Communist Party elites that engender some of the skepticism of his appointment.
Taiwan expert and author J. Michael Cole tweeted on the day of the announcement, “An appointment that will surely please Beijing, but one that I doubt will result in a clear affirmation of Canada’s non-commerce-related interests.”
Cole said the appointment was a win for China and a capitulation on the part of the Canadian government, taking aim at Barton’s business savvy and ties with Beijing’s elite, which suggests a lower priority for issues such as human rights.
One of Canada’s former ambassadors to China, David Mulroney, was critical of the appointment based on the political dimension.
“This (dubious) notion that we need to hire political insiders as ambos, because the PM takes their calls, needs to be challenged,” he tweeted on Sept. 5.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Barton’s appointment had been vetted and that there’s no conflict of interest. “An expert in the region, he is exceptionally well-suited to represent Canada and advance Canadian interests at this critical time,” she said in a press release.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole said Barton is the wrong choice, given that he is a businessman and lacks diplomatic savvy.
Trying to Get Away With It
Beijing has been scolding Ottawa ever since Meng’s arrest. A day after Barton’s appointment, China’s foreign ministry reiterated that Canada should let Meng go and “reflect on its mistakes.”
As someone who understands Chinese idioms, Kovalio said this is the worst kind of aggressive language and it was used very deliberately.
“This is a racist, ultranationalistic, aggressive, imperialist government,” Kovalio said. “They simply think that we are not even remotely similar in our [Canada’s] position to their lofty and dominant position internationally.”
Contradicting the communist regime’s self-belief in its supposedly impregnable global stature, a new study by Macdonald-Laurier Institute senior fellow Duanjie Chen argues that Canada is not in a weak position against China and that yielding to its coercion, as many other countries have done, will only embolden it.
For example, Canada can ban Huawei from its next-generation 5G wireless network infrastructure. It can withdraw from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, headed by Beijing, and use those funds to help Canadian farmers who face trade restrictions from one of their largest customers in China. Canada should also closely scrutinize research and development funding coming from China, Chen argues.
China’s demand for agriproducts from Canada is expected to grow, and Canadian commodities are actually well respected in China for their quality, despite Beijing’s dubious allegations regarding canola, for example.
Barton will have to work toward getting China to ease trade restrictions on Canadian agriproducts, but Kovalio urges Canada to reduce trade dependence on China in general. He said a free trade deal with China would be “suicidal.”
“We should learn from what has been happening since December of last year, and never again try to put a significant number of our eggs in China’s basket,” he said.
Going forward, Canada’s resistance to China should take the form of cooperation with its peers—Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and India—that have also been on the receiving end of Beijing’s bullying.
Barton replaces John McCallum, a former Liberal member of Parliament who was fired in January for poorly chosen remarks suggesting Meng had a strong case against extradition to the United States.
In addition, the federal Conservatives have requested that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) probe McCallum’s comments to the South China Morning Post warning that if Beijing continues to bully Canada, that would help the Conservatives come to power in the fall election.
“The relationship between Canada and China is an important one, and I will work hard to represent our great country and to resolve the challenges that currently exist,” Barton said in a press release following the announcement.