Barton, who was most recently managing director of the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company as well as an economic advisor to Finance Minister Bill Morneau and to the federal cabinet writ large, will take over the post vacated earlier this year.
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That opening came after former ambassador John McCallum was fired for weighing in on the extradition proceedings of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou.
WATCH BELOW: McCallum out as Canadian ambassador to China after comments on Meng extradition
Barton’s start date is not yet clear — a statement from the government announcing his appointment did not specify.
His appointment comes as tensions between Canada and China are at an all-time high.
China seized two Canadian citizens just days after border officials in Vancouver arrested Meng at the behest of American authorities, who have charged her and her company with 23 counts of violating sanctions on Iran and corporate espionage.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor remain in a Chinese prison and have not had access to a lawyer.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a press conference on Wednesday that advocating for Kovrig and Spavor will be a “central” part of Barton’s new role — as will the broader question of navigating how to deal with China more broadly.
“I think one of the major challenges of the 21st century is figuring out how the rules-based international order, which was established after the Second World War, accommodates the rising powers,” she said.
“Figuring out how China fits into this world, I think it has been clear for some time [that] would be one of the biggest challenges of this century.”
Freeland also addressed a report from the New York Times in December 2018 that detailed evidence of Barton’s old firm, McKinsey, holding its annual retreat just four miles away from a Uighur internment camp, and which noted some of the firm’s clients have helped China build up artificial islands in the South China Sea.
That report, which featured interviews with dozens of former McKinsey employees, made the case that the firm has “helped raise the stature of authoritarian and corrupt governments across the globe, sometimes in ways that counter American interests” at a time when democracies are under attack.
“Our government has had obviously very detailed and extensive conversations with Mr. Barton about what the role of ambassador to China for Canada entails and that absolutely has included long discussions about the centrality of minority rights, women’s rights to Canada’s foreign policy,” she said.
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Barton, she added, will need to go through an extensive process to make sure his business interests do not pose a conflict of interests.
“Mr. Barton will have to ensure that there are no conflicts between his personal business interests and his public service and that absolutely does involve stepping down from boards, ensuring any assets he holds and decisions taken on them are not in conflict with his service to Canada,” she said.
In addition to detaining two Canadians, China has also slapped restrictions on imports of canola seed, soybeans, pork and beef from Canada.
Canadian officials call the detentions “arbitrary” and have been rallying allies over the last nine months to speak out in condemnation of China’s actions and to work behind the scenes to try to secure the release of Kovrig and Spavor.
Those allies include the European Union and the United States, which have both spoken out over the past month, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling the behaviour by China “unacceptable.”
Meng’s fight against extradition could take years.
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Meanwhile, Chinese aggression not only in the detentions but also throughout the South China Sea, against minorities within its borders, and against democratic protestors and opponents to the Communist Party has prompted greater criticism from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau than in the past.
Chinese officials have warned Canada to “stop its wrongdoing before it’s too late.”
But Trudeau has several times in recent months taken aim at Chinese aggression and the need for democracies to take a clearer stance in their dealings with the country.
“China is making stronger moves than it has before to try and get its own way on the world stage,” Trudeau said in May.
“Western countries and democracies around the world are pulling together to point out that this is not something we need to continue to allow.”
Just last month, he made similar remarks.
“As a global community, we must recognize that China is a growing power and increasingly assertive towards its place in the international order,” Trudeau said at a Montreal Council on Foreign Relations event.
“But make no mistake: We will always defend Canadians and Canadian interests.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had called on Trudeau to quickly fill the ambassadorship but also wants to see the government cut support to projects with China, including the Beijing-run Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to which Canada has committed $256 million over five years.
With files from Global’s Mercedes Stephenson