Politics

Raymond J. de Souza: Dominic Barton’s appointment to China was a ‘dirty’ ploy that failed spectacularly

Barton may have been the least successful appointment in the history of Canadian diplomacy

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Farewell greetings are not delivered under oath. To the contrary, when praise for a departing official is extravagantly and implausibly effusive, it signifies that the awkward bits have been left out.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Dominic Barton, our departing ambassador in China, “will be remembered throughout history as one of Canada’s great diplomats.” Terry Glavin begged to differ in these pages, noting that Barton, a former global managing partner with McKinsey & Company, had “questionable intimacies with China’s ruling class.”

McKinsey, where Barton headed up the China office before he took on the global role, is now being scrutinized in the United States for potential conflicts of interest. McKinsey, as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defence, was party to security secrets that would have been of great interest to its Chinese clients, companies controlled by the Communist regime. Inconvenient questions will be put to Barton about whether McKinsey made money in China by selling access to American security information.

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Leave aside the question of what it says about the Pentagon that it would do business with a company that was happy to share professional intimacies with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Barton’s appointment to Beijing was a massive failure, precisely because of those intimacies. Barton may have been the least successful appointment in the history of Canadian diplomacy, though that would be a tough prize to accurately adjudicate.

Recall the timeline. Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were taken hostage by the CCP in December 2018. Our then-ambassador to China, John McCallum, told CCP-controlled media in January 2019 that it would be best if the U.S. dropped its extradition request for Meng Wanzhou, so that Canada’s hostages could be released. That was a step too far, and Trudeau forced him to resign.

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Who then to send to Beijing after the kidnapping of the two Michaels? Sometimes the best way to do business with a gangster is to enlist intermediaries who have done business with the gangster before. Why wouldn’t the same hold true with a gangster regime?

That was the consensus diplomatic thinking in Ottawa throughout 2019. Former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney (who later recanted) advocated sending the powerful Desmarais family to Beijing.

For decades, the Desmarais family has lobbied for a business-friendly approach to China through the Canada China Business Council (CCBC), which they created in 1978 to bend Canadian foreign policy toward a position that favoured the family and fellow businesses with interests in the People’s Republic.

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When Chrétien — who’s linked by marriage to the Desmarais clan — arrived in China in 1994 with the gargantuan “Team Canada” mission just five years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the CCBC was at the apex of its power.

Barton is from that set. Indeed, the controversial speech he gave advocating for increased business ties with China, even while the two Michaels were being sleep-deprived in harsh confinement, was delivered to the CCBC.

In appointing Barton in September 2019, Trudeau bet that the CCP might cut a deal with an old friend. McKinsey and the CCBC had been arguing for a soft-on-China policy for so long that it was reasonable to think that Beijing might return the favour. After all, Barton and his ilk had been doing lucrative business with the gangster regime for a long time.

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Barton took that premise to embarrassing extremes, arranging in 2018 for his McKinsey colleagues to go on a sybaritic “ global retreat ” — with actual red carpets connecting luxurious tents in the desert — within an hour’s walk of the camps where millions of Uighurs had been interned for re-education and forced labour.

Less than a year later, Barton was our man in Beijing.

One would hope that our foreign affairs officials were revolted when they reviewed the file of Barton frolicking just a short distance from the massive detention camps. But in the prime minister’s eyes, the capacity to live it up in the midst of a massive human rights abuse was a feature, not a bug. Surely Barton, having raised his champagne glasses against the background of imprisoned Uighurs, would be the ideal envoy to cut a deal with the CCP.

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In the end, the Barton gambit failed spectacularly. The best he could manage was to get occasional consular access to the Michaels in prison. There were no favours for old friends from the CCP. Barton’s appointment, far from being seen by the CCP as the act of an old friend, was viewed as weakness. The McKinsey-CCBC consensus on China had failed. Mulroney himself broke ranks in 2020.

The Americans eventually agreed to a plea deal for Meng — either as a prisoner swap approved by U.S. President Joe Biden, or as a routine Justice Department deferred prosecution agreement, as the Biden administration argues. That would have happened regardless of whether Barton was our ambassador.

In diplomacy, dirty things sometimes need to be done. The Barton appointment was one such thing. But it didn’t work, and even the prime minister must have thought that the dirty business ought to stop.

National Post

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