Canada’s ambassador to China steps down as Ottawa faces pressure from Biden administration

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Dominic Barton steps down as Canada’s ambassador to China
WATCH ABOVE: Dominic Barton has announced he will be stepping down as Canada's ambassador to China. David Akin explains why the departure might mean a new approach to relations between the two countries, as Ottawa still faces many diplomatic challenges with Beijing. – Dec 6, 2021

Dominic Barton, a strong advocate for increased trade with China during his term as ambassador, is stepping down amidst growing pressure from the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden for Ottawa to take a tougher stance with Beijing, foreign policy and national security experts said.

Barton, who was appointed by the Trudeau government in September 2019, announced his resignation Monday, citing his success “working to secure the release” of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor as the fulfillment of a priority mission handed to him by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In a statement, Barton said he also worked to ease tensions with Beijing that stemmed from the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and that Barton believes Canada is now “better positioned” to achieve “its other diplomatic priorities with China.”

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Barton’s term is highlighted by extreme contrasts: Canada’s trade with China soared to historic highs, but Beijing’s ruthless hostage-diplomacy tactics were laid bare and public opinion on Ottawa’s stance with China fell to historic lows. Now, some local pro-democracy Canadian groups are calling for a more coherent strategy on this complicated file.

“Since the release of the two Michaels, Barton has claimed that Canada can resume to business as usual with China,” said Cherie Wong, executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong. “The community is anxious that the Canadian authorities will continue to favour economic benefit over the safety of dissidents and activists.

“There are still Canadians jailed and on death row in China, many are denied consular access and access to basic needs, and the diaspora in Canada are facing harassment and intimidation for their activism.”

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Wong added: “We are hoping and looking to the government to appoint an ambassador who understands the complex geopolitical threat posed by Beijing and will defend Canadian values from Beijing’s corrosion.”

Experts in Ottawa were surprised Monday by Barton’s sudden announcement and questioned its rationale.

Stephanie Carvin, professor of international relations at Carleton University, said Barton, who has repeatedly touted his bullish stance on China and stressed the nation’s importance to Canada’s future, “just increasingly is out of step with where the Trudeau government is going.”

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“Barton was someone who could facilitate better relationships with China for business,” Carvin said. “But there is a lot of pressure to move in another direction, and pressure from the Biden administration to take a harder line on China.”

However, Barton does deserve credit for working diplomatic channels in the United States to secure the release of Kovrig and Spavor, Carvin said.

Global Affairs Canada has not yet responded to questions for this story on Barton’s resignation.

Charles Burton, a professor of politics who served as a diplomat for Canada in Beijing, said he doesn’t believe Barton was actually effective on the Kovrig and Spavor file, and that in reality, increasing business deals between Canadian and Chinese firms was Barton’s top priority.

“I think he was seen as a weak and compliant ambassador,” Burton said. “But I was surprised (with Barton’s resignation), because I expected he would play a role in determining Canada’s China policy, and that he enjoyed the Prime Minister’s trust.”

Burton said President Joe Biden’s administration has made it clear it expects Canada to “step up” in defence of democracies and human rights as Beijing asserts an increasingly belligerent stance in geopolitics and seeks to challenge the United States’ position as the world’s greatest power.

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But Barton was perceived as a voice of the status quo on China policy, Burton said, noting that trade figures show Canada’s business with China increased since 2019, even while Kovrig and Spavor were imprisoned.

Burton also speculated that Barton’s former role as managing director at McKinsey and Company, a global business consultancy giant, could have weighed on his future in Canadian government.

McKinsey and Company faces U.S. Congressional committee hearings on potential conflicts of interest, Burton said, which could include its contracts with Chinese state-owned firms that are involved in the Chinese military sector, and whether these contracts could have caused national security concerns for the United States.

Mark Warner, a Canadian lawyer who works in international trade, echoed the theory.

“Barton has mostly escaped scrutiny for his role at McKinsey in Canada to my surprise, because the issues were live when he was appointed,” Warner said.

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“He has already had to testify in a bankruptcy case involving McKinsey in the U.S. and I think it is reasonable to expect him to be called to testify into the House oversight investigation into actions that mostly covered his time heading McKinsey.”

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