Ottawa | Reuters — Canada has appointed veteran business consultant Dominic Barton as ambassador to China, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday, as the government grapples with a major diplomatic and trade dispute between the nations.
Barton, 56, a Ugandan-born Canadian who stepped down as global managing partner of consulting firm McKinsey and Co. last year, has extensive experience in China and is close to Trudeau’s Liberal government.
“His years of experience in Asia, and the significant global economics expertise he has acquired over an impressive career, will make him a great choice,” Trudeau said in a statement.
Barton replaces John McCallum, who Trudeau fired in January for commenting on the case of a Huawei Technologies co executive who was arrested in Canada and is fighting extradition to the United States.
Beijing, which has demanded Canada return Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, has blocked imports of Canadian canola seed and pork and beef products. It has also charged two Canadian men with spying.
Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, noting “some significant challenges in the relationship,” said it was vital to choose an envoy who Beijing knew would have direct access to Trudeau.
She also told reporters in Toronto that Barton would be expected to stress the importance of human rights, a highly sensitive topic for the Chinese government.
Business and agricultural groups welcomed the announcement. In 2016, the Canadian government appointed Barton as head of an advisory council on economic growth.
“We are pleased with the appointment and the signal that both sides see the importance of returning to normal bilateral relations,” said Goldy Hyder, CEO of the Business Council of Canada.
The news indicates the two governments are still talking despite months of fraught ties. The Chinese embassy in Ottawa had no immediate comment.
“This is the outcome of a months-long diplomatic process,” a Canadian government official said earlier on Wednesday.
Gary Stordy, director of government and corporate affairs at the Canadian Pork Council, said the appointment was “the next step to normalizing relations between the two countries.”
“We’re looking to regain market access into China,” he added.
“Given the importance and recent uncertainty of our trade relationship, it is crucial to have an experienced voice in China to stand up for our sector and help re-open the markets we count on,” Grain Growers of Canada chair Jeff Nielsen said in a release Wednesday.
The GGC noted Barton’s leadership in Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth in preparing the 2017 Barton Report, which pointed to agriculture as “a sector with the potential for substantial growth and export improvement.”
The GGC said it’s “confident that Mr. Barton will carry forward this sentiment and recognize that agriculture is a key driver of the Canadian economy.”
Canada’s dispute with China could become an issue in a federal election set for Oct. 21. The Liberals face a tough fight against the Conservatives of Andrew Scheer, who complain Trudeau has not been tough enough on Beijing.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole, an Ontario MP, accused Trudeau of “replacing one Liberal insider with another Liberal insider at a time that we should have a professional diplomat… to secure the swift release of Canadian citizens and stabilization of export trade.”
–– Reporting for Reuters by David Ljunggren; additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson and Steve Scherer. Includes files from Glacier FarmMedia staff.