Dominic Barton is the catch that Justin Trudeau wanted to get the last time. Now it will go to China after times have changed.
Two Canadians are in Chinese prisons and official Beijing mouthpieces regularly shoot ridiculously low shots against Canada. Trudeau's tone in relations with China has become tougher. So the fact that Barton, a silver-speaking charmer with extensive contacts in Asia, is sent to Beijing while the Canadian ambassador says something.
Mr. Barton believes in the importance of engaging with China, so it is quite clear that he is sent there to try to engage again. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer calls for a strategic withdrawal from China, arguing that Canada must accept that China does not share our interests and try to develop trade elsewhere. The appointment of Mr. Barton, just a few days before the start of an election campaign, is a sign that Trudeau believes that Canada cannot afford to do so.
If you don't know the name of Mr. Barton, many elites in the world know it. Until 2018, he was the managing partner of the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. He knows the engines and shakers and is one of them. You can get meetings with CEOs and heads of government. He was once the president of McKinsey in Asia, based in Shanghai. He has contacts in China that Canadian diplomats do not have. It is, according to any objective objective of human resources, a capture.
In 2016, Trudeau's team urged Mr. Barton to serve as Canada's ambassador to China. Then they did not land him – he wanted to finish his third term as head of McKinsey – and settled down to appoint a cabinet minister, John McCallum, as a high-profile envoy.
It didn't end well. More generally, Canada's relationship with China has gone from hopeful to horrible. Two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, are imprisoned for transparent retaliation for arrest, at the request of US extradition, of the financial director of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. Meng Wanzhou. China has blocked Canadian canola and meat imports.
So this time, Mr. Barton was offered a very different job.
Perhaps he will now go to China because there is an opening and it is now available. Mr. Barton is placed in the Trudeau circle, particularly with the former chief secretary of the Prime Minister, Gerald Butts. He served as chairman of the Advisory Council for Economic Growth of the Liberal Government, which recommended great McKinsey-style ideas: a great expansion of immigration; a massive investment in mid-career redevelopment; and so on.
But in 2019, Barton's appointment is also a symbol of Mr. Trudeau's approach to China. He is not trying to disengage. He's trying to get involved again.
Mr. Barton will be just an ambassador, of course, but it's hard to imagine he will go to China simply to handle the current cold. He is convinced that Asia, in particular China, is the main growth driver of the global economy and that Canada must attract its wagon on this growth. He took first place at McKinsey on the basis of his experience in building profitable business relationships in Asia. You can bet that his intention is to make the Chinese and Canadian governments talk again, to convince Beijing to put the dispute in the past and expand trade.
Sending an envoy to Beijing with that agenda is now more controversial than it was three years ago. Beijing has made clear, in brutal terms, what it will do to Canadians when it is unhappy.
In a political speech two weeks ago, Trudeau said his government's response will be solid professionalism. "We do not intensify, but we do not retreat," he said. The appointment of Barton indicates that the liberal policy is to repair the fences.
Relations with China will not dominate the upcoming election campaign, but they are probably more of a problem than ever. China is asserting its power as a growing superpower and Canadians cannot help but notice. There are now two very different approaches to China. Scheer argues that the current crisis shows that Canada must keep China at a distance, isolated from its hostile influence. Mr. Trudeau, by sending Mr. Barton, is reporting that he believes there is a way to overcome it.
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