Dominic Barton is Canada’s bright light in the crisis with China

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 31, 2020.

When it comes to China, the Trudeau government has acted with the deference a pageboy would show a queen. As they have muddled through a long series of skirmishes, from the arbitrary and unjust kidnapping of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to the trade disputes over canola, soybeans and meat, the objections of the federal government have been muted and overly diplomatic.

For a time, it seemed the COVID-19 pandemic would be no different. The well-substantiated suggestion that China had been less than forthcoming in its disclosures about the virus was dismissed by the federal health minister as a “conspiracy theory.” The minister of foreign affairs twisted himself into a pretzel to avoid even saying the word “Taiwan.” We refused to close our border to flights originating from China. And this week, as Beijing snuffed out the last remnants of the One Country, Two Systems agreement that protected civil liberties in Hong Kong, the most Trudeau could muster was a call for “constructive” dialogue.

But, thankfully, a bright light has appeared on the horizon: plucked from the private sector and appointed Canadian ambassador to China last September, Dominic Barton has gone further than any other Canadian official in criticizing Beijing.

Last week, Barton was in the news for his comments to the Canadian International Council during which he suggested Beijing had accrued “negative soft power” through its belligerent international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and endorsed a “rigorous review” of the WHO’s response.

By the standard of the Trudeau government, this amounted to surprisingly pointed criticism. More surprising still was the prime minister’s endorsement of this criticism the day after it was reported publicly.

Some had early concerns with Barton, who was appointed to the ambassadorship fresh off his stint as the managing director of the consulting firm McKinsey.

But Barton was a savvy choice. An experienced China hand, and a principled realist, he now uses the qualities that enabled him to succeed brilliantly in business to drive his candid commentary about China.

It is helpful that his concerns are real. In bungling its so-called Mask Diplomacy, China has, indeed, eroded its soft power and further alienated foreign governments. The Netherlands was forced to recall 600,000 faulty masks bought from China; in Spain, 50,000 test kits were tossed out after it was discovered they were only accurate about one-in-three times. The Slovenians bought 1.2 million antibody tests for $16 million dollars, only to discover they were similarly useless. The Czechs have had complaints, and so have the Turks. And, of course, Canada too. The list goes on.

Through it all, the Chinese government has pushed aggressively, in a Trump-like way, for the leaders of these European nations to offer public displays of gratitude. But the gambit has backfired. Instead of gratitude, the EU’s chief diplomat has warned that this so-called “politics of generosity” disguises a “geopolitical struggle for influence through spinning.”

And so it is these two ambassadors who, in positions not known for straight talk, have emerged as the sanest, clearest moral voice when it comes to China.

Of course, there will always be a David-and-Goliath dynamic that constrains what Canadians can say and do when it comes to dealing with a superpower such as China. The reality is Ottawa cannot simultaneously be at odds with both Beijing and Washington, especially while the latter has its mercurial commander-in-chief.

Nevertheless, I predict we can count on Barton to continue to speak truth to power, at least so much as his position — and Canada’s position — allows.

And speak truth to power not just to the Chinese but to the Canadian government as well. After all, he has the tools to do so: credibility and respect within Trudeau’s Ottawa and within Xi’s Beijing.

But doing so just got more complicated. On Wednesday, a B.C. judge decided the case against Meng Wanzhou, a Huawei executive and daughter of the company’s founder, should proceed.

Though the courts have yet to rule on her extradition to the U.S., the ultimate decision maker in this process is the minister of justice, who must determine whether the extradition could generate an outcome that runs “contrary to Canadian values.”

Contrary to Canadian values when it comes to China? Watch for Barton’s influence as the Trudeau government works to sort that question.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt