Will Dominic Barton’s experience in China help or hurt him as Canada’s new man in Beijing?
When word of Dominic Barton’s appointment as Canada’s next ambassador to China leaked out Wednesday afternoon at the Fairmont Royal York hotel, the esteemed audience at the Toronto Global Forum gave him a standing ovation.
So Barton, in “good Chinese tradition,” he said, took a bow.
If Barton’s audience had cared to know a bit more about the incoming ambassador’s thoughts on Asia and China, all they needed to do was pick up the September issue of the International Economic Forum of the Americas magazine, which was readily available there.
“From a geopolitical point of view, there has to be a change,” Barton is quoted as saying in an interview in the magazine, while discussing the shifting pattern of global economic activity. “In the past decades, the geopolitical situation was very much based in the West, but now we are moving back to what the world looked like 500 years ago, when it was actually dominated by Asia. I’m not trying to say that the world will be dominated by Asia, but I think there will be a very significant change in the world’s geopolitical structure.”
As the former global managing partner of consulting-powerhouse McKinsey & Co. — one who spent five years as the firm’s Shanghai-based chairman in Asia — Barton is as knowledgeable and connected as anyone when it comes to understanding China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse.
But his new job will involve more than just helping businesses navigate those changes. The Trudeau government is trying to free two Canadian citizens who were detained in China following the arrest of a Huawei executive in Vancouver late last year. There are also trade tensions that have arisen between Ottawa and Beijing that will need to be smoothed over.
Whether Barton’s experience and the ideas exhibited in his extensive writings and commentary on the country will be a help or a hindrance at such a precarious point remains to be seen. What they do offer is a window into the sort of knowledge he will bring to the job, and some hints about his view of China.
The resumé of the new ambassador is well-known: Rhodes Scholar, global managing partner at McKinsey, and chair of the Trudeau government’s advisory council on economic growth.
Dominic … is a profoundly patriotic Canadian
Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland
More recently, Barton chaired the board of directors at Teck Resources Ltd., a Vancouver-based miner that counts a sovereign wealth fund from China as one of its biggest investors. Teck announced Wednesday that Barton was stepping down from its board, effective immediately, to take over the ambassador’s job.
Barton was born in Uganda, but moved with his family back to Canada and “still carries around a bit of the small-town boy from Sardis, a farming community outside Vancouver,” Duff McDonald says in his book on McKinsey, “The Firm.”
“Press him, and he will even evince a certain amount of surprise at his being elected at all (as McKinsey’s managing director).”
(Dominic) still carries around a bit of the small-town boy from Sardis, a farming community outside Vancouver
Author Duff McDonald in The Firm
After joining McKinsey in 1986, starting out in its Toronto office, Barton eventually moved east, where, McDonald says, he “spent his formative years navigating the back rooms of corporate Asia.”
As McDonald recounts in his book, Barton arrived in South Korea just ahead of the onset of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, handing him the grand project of helping restructure the Korean banking system.
The future ambassador would take his talents to China, becoming McKinsey’s Asia chairman from 2004 to 2009.
Barton went on to become an adjunct professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, and bylined a book, “China Vignettes,” which included interviews with 30 Chinese men and women, as well as short stories about daily life in China.
He is a prolific writer, and his work has often focused on getting businesses to think more about the long term, something at which he has said China is quite adept.
“For decades, China has simultaneously articulated its fifty-year strategy and executed successive five-year plans — this balance has been one of the fundamental drivers of its success story — perhaps even the most fundamental one,” Barton wrote in 2015 for the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development.
In a report for what was then the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (now the Business Council of Canada), which Barton co-authored, the challenges to entering and prospering in the Chinese market were highlighted.
The severity of those challenges, the authors said, was “amplified” by the sector, and state-owned firms, but also the “ability” of Canadian companies to align with China’s development goals.
“The more Canadian companies align themselves with these aims, the easier it will likely be for them to do business in China,” the authors wrote, adding later in a conclusion that: “The world is re-balancing towards Asia, and China in particular; Canada must re-balance with it.”
Rather than wag a finger from the sidelines, Barton has suggested Canada’s best chance at influencing Chinese governance and addressing human rights is through economic connections.
In this way, his approach very much resembles the motivating policy of Canada during the Chretien era — one that was built on a belief that if Canada engaged with China on economic matters, the Asian superpower would gradually comply with international norms in other areas too, said Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who served in Beijing and now teaches political science at Brock University.
Now, as we see with trade, more and more, China is using economic relations as a lever over countries to get them to satisfy Chinese political demands.
Charles Burton, former Canadian diplomat
“This policy has failed because China, rather than becoming more compliant with international norms for human rights and the rule of law under Xi Jinping, has explicitly gone in the other direction,” he said. “Now, as we see with trade, more and more, China is using economic relations as a lever over countries to get them to satisfy Chinese political demands.”
He points to Beijing’s move to ban many Philippine banana imports following the April 2012 standoff between Chinese and Philippine naval forces in the South China Sea near Scarborough Shoal. China also blocked imports of Norwegian salmon following the 2010 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Here in Canada, Beijing cut off all purchases of Canadian canola and suspended meat imports – moves widely viewed as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on an extradition request by the United States.
“This is a pattern of flouting of international norms that has become more and more severe as countries become more economically dependent on China,” Burton said. “So my perspective would be that Mr. Barton’s got it exactly wrong that as we become more economically implicated in China, China uses that as leverage to further its overall geostrategic goals.”
Returning to the pages of IEFA Magazine, Barton told his interviewer there was already plenty of innovation happening in Asia, particularly from China.
“If you think of places that are generating inspiring and radically different business models, most people think of Silicon Valley, but the place I would focus on is Shenzhen, near Hong Kong,” Barton was quoted as saying.
Shenzhen is, among other things, the home base of Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
Public opinion polls have made it clear that when it comes to China, Canadians believe Ottawa should be concerned about security issues such as Chinese state activities in Canada and Chinese acquisition of Canadian companies that have high tech elements, Burton said.
“At least we have an ambassador in place, which will have the appropriate access with his ambassadorial rank, which would not have been possible for (Jim Nickel) as Chargé d’Affaires,” Burton added. “But I am concerned about the overall aspects of Canada-China relations aside from promoting prosperity through engagement with the Chinese government, and so far we don’t have any indication that Mr. Barton has commitment to those aspects of the relationship that most Canadians feel should be front and centre.”
Gordon Houlden, a former Canadian diplomat and head of the University of Alberta’s China Institute, said Barton is “fundamentally right” about the need for a geopolitical shift, as there is a “rebalancing of the global economy” underway towards Asia and its larger population.
“I think he’s right that the opportunity to influence China comes from engagement, not standoff megaphone criticism,” Houlden said. “Countries also have responsibility to speak up against human rights offences. But that’s not the role of an ambassador. The ambassador’s job is not to go on the street corner and complain, it’s to go in and talk to Chinese officials about the issue.”
Yves Tiberghien, political science professor and director emeritus of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, said Barton is stepping into the job in a “very dangerous moment,” given the three-sided tensions with Canada, China and the United States.
Tiberghien also said G7 countries like Canada have mostly decided to stop making career diplomats their ambassadors to China, opting instead to go with politicians and others they trust personally to handle such a difficult task.
“Ambassador to China is an incredibly difficult job nowadays,” Tiberghien said. “It’s a very, very complex position and any creative ability to think about what’s happening, to open new networks, I think will be helpful.”
The federal government told the Financial Post the ambassador was not available for interviews this week.
But Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland, said Wednesday that the government had had conversations with Barton about what his new role would entail, “and that absolutely has included long discussions about the centrality of human rights, of women’s rights, to Canada’s foreign policy.”
The minister also said, according to a transcript, one of the major challenges of this century is figuring out how the post-Second World War “rules-based international order” accommodates such surging markets as China’s.
Freeland added Friday at the Toronto Global Forum that when she spoke to him Thursday night, Barton was already on his way to the airport, heading for Hong Kong.
“Dominic … is a person who is a profoundly patriotic Canadian,” Freeland said. “And I think he really understands that this is an opportunity for him to do something important for our country.”