Barton as ambassador to China is what agriculture needs

Canada’s relationship with China is complicated — it involves extradition, unlawful retribution arrests, non-tariff barriers, fake CFIA documents, and a spying telecom company.

In the months since the recall of former Canadian ambassador to China John McCallum, the agriculture industry has been waiting very impatiently for a new ambassador. Agriculture’s hope has been that a proper ambassador on the ground in China is a key step to regaining market access back to 2017 levels.

The former ambassador to China, John McCallum was overly sympathetic to China, but appeared sloppy in commentary, not really respected on Bay Street, constantly offside with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland.

The appointment of former McKinsey Global managing partner Dominic Barton as the new ambassador should be music to the ears of farmers and ranchers across the country.

The critics of the Barton posting point out his lack of diplomatic experience and ties to a global consulting company that has had its fair share of ties to autocratic governments and not being conscious of human rights violations.

In my opinion, Dominic Barton meets the exact criteria of skills and experience that agriculture needs to repair the relationship. Barton has extensive business experience in China and has a firm grasp of the complicated China landscape. What’s more, he led the oft-quoted Advisory Council on Economic Growth report, dubbed “the Barton Report,” one that identifies agriculture as a hugely important part of Canada’s economic success.

Farmers in Canada have fallen victim to a web of fallouts that are not directly tied to the industry. There is some sympathy for the overarching Huawei saga, but in reality supporting a more hawkish China strategy has been tough to stomach by farmers in Canada. I have repeatedly received emails from the RealAg audience stating, “release the prisoner.” The long tail U.S. strategy to cripple the Chinese economy has not only impacted growers south of the 49th parallel but Canadian farmers as well, as China has found it more convenient at times to make an example of Canada.

Wheat, wool, lobster and cherry exports have surged while canola, pork and beef exports have struggled.

How Barton approaches the relationship with China will be telling. Some China experts like Charles Burton have called for Canada to get tough on China while others see the extradition arrest of Huawei CFO as an unnecessary blunder forced by the U.S.

If the Canadian plan is to become more dovish on China, the challenge will be to not upset the White House at a time when the USMCA is still not ratified and there is a clear history of President Trump not hesitating to lash out at leaders and countries that he thinks have crossed him.

Barton is cut form the same cloth as U.S. treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin (Goldman Sachs background) who is one of the leads on China trade talks with USTR Robert Lighthizer.

Farmers in Canada should be very pleased with the posting of Dominic Barton in China. He will focus on resuming trade, somewhat ignore China’s human rights violations, and be able to walk the line with the U.S. to not push Canada offside.

This is exactly what Canadian agriculture has been asking for.

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