OTTAWA – Dominic Barton resigned as ambassador to China after two tense years in which he was praised for helping to secure the release of two Canadians from Chinese custody and criticized for strongly pushing trade ties with Beijing.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Barton’s pending departure Monday morning, saying the former business executive will officially leave at the end of the year.
“With great gratitude and respect, I have accepted Ambassador Barton’s decision to leave his post in Beijing at the end of the year,” Trudeau said in a statement.
“For the past two years, Dominic has led our team in China with determination, integrity and compassion, and at a time when relations between our two countries faced difficult challenges.”
The announcement comes three months after the release of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were first arrested and detained in December 2018 by Chinese authorities.
His detention in a Chinese prison was in apparent retaliation for Canadian officials detaining Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was wanted in the United States on fraud charges.
The case of the two Michaels dominated Barton’s tenure as Canada’s top diplomat in Beijing, which Trudeau noted when announcing his resignation on Monday.
“As a defender of human rights and the rule of law, his highest priority has always been to secure the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who had been arbitrarily detained in China for two and a half years,” Trudeau said.
“He worked tirelessly on this important task. … Thanks to Dominic’s leadership and skillful diplomatic approach, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are back home with their families.
The two Michaels were released from Chinese detention and returned to Canada in September, hours after Meng signed a deferred prosecution agreement with the United States that released her from Canadian custody and returned her to China.
Dominic Barton resigns as ambassador to #China after negotiating the release of the #TwoMichaels #cdnpoli
However, Barton, who previously served as a top executive at global consulting firm McKinsey and Co., was also criticized for pushing for greater trade ties with China while the two Michaels were detained, and despite Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian bent.
“Mr. Barton was an ineffective Canadian envoy because he lacked understanding or even interest in the non-commercial diplomatic aspects of Canada-China relations,” said Charles Burton, who served two terms as a diplomat at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing.
Burton, who is now a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, also accused the ambassador of having been ineffective in pressuring China to release Kovrig and Spavor, or allowing the two Canadians to receive consular access.
Canadian officials previously complained that China was failing to meet its international obligations by limiting diplomatic access to the two Michaels.
Former Canadian Ambassador to China David Mulroney, who has been critical of the handling of China’s liberal government in recent years, criticized Barton’s approach, as well as that of his predecessor, John McCallum.
McCallum, who served in the cabinets of several liberal prime ministers, including Trudeau, abruptly resigned in January 2019 after listing several arguments that he thought could help Meng fight extradition in a discussion with Chinese-speaking journalists.
“We had two ambassadors who seemed to reflect the prime minister’s unchanging and highly positive stance on China,” Mulroney said on Twitter.
He added that Trudeau “needs to understand, finally, that we don’t need a promoter, but someone can help implement a smart and realistic China policy that addresses the growing risk we face.”
While Conservative leader Erin O’Toole thanked Barton for his service, she also accused the liberal government of mishandling Canada’s relationship from the beginning.
“What we need is a principles-based approach that shows that our economic interests in China will not dominate our human rights concerns, be it for the Uighurs, the situation in Hong Kong, the tensions regarding Taiwan,” he said.
“And I hope that Mr. Trudeau will put a diplomat with professional experience in that position, not a friend from the Liberal Party.”
Meanwhile, questions have arisen in the United States about McKinsey’s relationship with China, as the multinational company, where Barton was managing director for nearly a decade, has also been working with the US military.
That has raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest for the company, particularly as tensions between the United States and China rise.
While the release of Meng and the two Michaels ended the most contentious dispute between Canada and China in years, the liberal government continues to grapple with a number of sensitive but important issues in the relationship.
That includes whether to allow Huawei to participate in Canada’s 5G wireless network, to what extent Canadian universities will be able to work with Chinese entities, and how to respond to its aggressive stance on the world stage.
The Liberals promised during the elections to launch an Asia-Pacific strategy for the region, emphasizing the importance of building new trade ties and expanding existing ones, while making reference to greater diplomatic and military relations in the area.
They touched on that promise in last month’s throne speech, which did not specifically mention China, but did note an increase in authoritarianism and “great-power competition,” and did mention deepening partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.
Trudeau in his statement praised Barton for helping to shape Canada’s ties and priorities with China, saying: “Thanks to your efforts, Canada is now better positioned to manage this important relationship and achieve our diplomatic goals.”
This Canadian Press report was first published on December 6, 2021.