New Canada ambassador’s China ties ‘may help ease troubled relationship’

Sarah Zheng

The new Canadian ambassador to Beijing’s extensive experience of living and working in China may help ease the ongoing diplomatic feud between the two countries, but a reset in relations would be difficult, according to observers.

Diplomatic relations between Ottawa and Beijing have been at a stalemate since December, when Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was detained in Vancouver at the request of the United States. Since then, two Canadians – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – have been detained in China, in what was widely seen as a retaliatory move.

Canadian exports to China – including canola seed, soybeans, pork and beef – have also been derailed by revoked licences, lengthy shipment investigations and other measures. Both governments also raised travel advisories to their respective countries in January.

Dominic Barton, who served as global managing partner at consulting giant McKinsey from 2009 to 2018, is Canada’s first envoy to Beijing since the sacking in January of previous ambassador John McCallum, over controversial comments in relation to the Meng case.

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While he will face significant hurdles in trying to reset ties between Beijing and Ottawa, analysts said his strong ties to Asia would serve him well. Barton led McKinsey’s Asia practice for 12 years, including five in Shanghai.

He also sat on the advisory board of China Development Bank, wrote a book about life in China, taught at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and served on the board of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Despite concerns about McKinsey’s work with Chinese state entities under Barton’s helm, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said there was no conflict of interest, and that Barton would stress the importance of human rights in his new role.

China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday it looked forward to Barton actively working to “push China-Canada relations back onto a normal track”.

“Canada is very clear on this. We urge the Canadian side to reflect on its mistakes and take seriously China’s position and concerns, to immediately release Meng Wanzhou so she can return home safely,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

Stephen Nagy, distinguished fellow at the non-profit Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, said Barton – an “East Asia hand” who understood China and its place in the region – would lend a more nuanced approach to building better relations.

“He is well situated with his China experience, and also his broader Asia experience,” Nagy said. “But can he fundamentally reset China-Canada relations at this particular time? I don’t think he has much agency to fundamentally shift the challenges that have emerged over the past year, but that may depend on Canadian elections [next month].”

We may see some superficial and cosmetic improvements in the near future, but it is unlikely that we will see a significant rapprochement before the release of the Huawei executive

Benoit Hardy-Chartrand, adjunct professor, Temple University in Japan

Nagy said Barton would also need to grapple with the impact on Canada of China-US relations, adding it was not in Ottawa’s interest to decouple from China, or for human rights to be a pillar of their relationship.

“There will be a behind doors, values-based approach to diplomacy, but up front the focus will be on improving bilateral relations, trying to find convergences in national interests, and trying to find ways to cooperate to reset China-Canadian relations,” he said.

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Benoit Hardy-Chartrand, adjunct professor teaching Chinese foreign policy and East Asian affairs at Temple University in Japan, said Barton’s appointment showed the Canadian government was keen to reset its relations with Beijing, now in “one of the deepest bilateral crises” since relations were first established. But, he said, the relationship would be unlikely to see immediate improvement.

“We may see some superficial and cosmetic improvements in the near future, but it is unlikely that we will see a significant rapprochement before the release of the Huawei executive, as [Chinese President] Xi Jinping will not want to give the impression that China’s demands have been lowered.”

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong

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