Jean Charest says the federal government’s foot-dragging on pushing trade with China is sending the country the wrong signal.

Canada has yet to ratify a trade agreement with China more than two years after it was signed

It took both countries 18 years to negotiate a foreign investment promotion and protection agreement. That deal has to be ratified by cabinet before taking effect, something that has yet to happen.

In an interview with Evan Solomon on CBC Radio’s The House, Quebec’s former premier said that’s a problem.

“What we hear between the lines is that there may be some concerns about dealing with China because of concerns because of human rights issues, because of other issues. But if that was the case, you’d think that would have been taken into consideration before you negotiate the agreement,” Charest said.

The prime minister and the panda

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, pose with a giant panda at the Chongqing Zoo in February 2012. An agreement on investment promotion and protection was signed on that visit, but has yet to be ratified. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

CBC News has reported that there are tensions within Stephen Harper’s cabinet about how to handle the relationship with China, and that has slowed down the process.

There’s also an ongoing court challenge by the Hupacasath First Nation to stay the Canada-China investment treaty until First Nations have been consulted.

But according to Charest, the wait has become problematic.

“You know what’s a little more confusing? Following the signature of the agreement, there was some talk about doing a bigger agreement, a trade agreement, a much more ambitious agreement on overall trade,” Charest said. “And yet, this agreement that’s less than that has not yet been approved for reasons that are unclear.”

Other opportunities

Charest, who’s now a partner at the firm McCarthy Tetrault, says China is not the only market Canada should be going after, especially when it comes to energy exports.

“There’s a big opportunity for Canada. Now it’s even true in Europe. I mean, what has happened in Ukraine has demonstrated that it’s not only in Asia where there’s an opportunity, it’s very true for Europe,” he said.

But pursuing those opportunities requires building pipelines. Charest says as the Keystone XL file has shown, the federal government has to do a better job linking the energy and environmental files.

“On the issue of climate change, I don’t think we have been on top of our game. I certainly think the federal government has not been as proactive as it should have been on this issue,” Charest said.

Trade Minister Ed Fast started his fifth visit to China on Friday ahead of an APEC trade ministers meeting being held on the weekend.

Fast will lead a trade mission to Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong following the APEC summit. A news release from his department said the mission "will focus on sustainable technologies, a priority sector under Canada’s Global Markets Action Plan, and support representatives from Canadian small and medium-sized enterprises looking to export to China."