Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's quick trip to Asia finished Wednesday in Hong Kong with a speech that laid out how Canada is making this region a foreign policy priority, and that getting a pipeline to the Pacific coast is key to tapping into the lucrative Asian market.

During a speech to the Asia Society. Baird said Canada realizes the enormous economic opportunities Asia has to offer and is taking steps to play a more active role here.

Baird spent Monday in Singapore, Tuesday in Vietnam and Wednesday in Hong Kong, where close to 300,000 Canadians live and 180 Canadian businesses have offices. It's his seventh trip to Asia, and Baird said he plans on coming back often.

While trade and investment ties are growing stronger, they haven't reached their full potential and Canada has yet to ink a free trade deal with an Asian country, Baird said.

"We know that this region cannot be taken for granted and that there is no room for complacency. For this reason, we have made trade with Asia a top foreign policy priority," he told an audience that included diplomats, religious and business leaders.

Keystone rejection a 'wakeup call'

In a question period after his speech, Baird said Canada is "very keen" to diversify its markets beyond the United States and that's why the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, the European Union trade deal that has yet to be concluded, and ongoing negotiations with India are so crucial. Free trade negotiations with South Korea are also high on the agenda now that President Park Guen-hye has taken office.

"When last year the pipeline was refused going to the United States, that was a real wakeup call in Canada, that it's a matter of national imperative to diversify our markets. We hope to see Keystone approved in the coming months, we're working tremendously hard with the Obama administration on this but it is a national imperative to get a pipeline to the west coast," he said.

CBC in Hong Kong

Meagan Fitzpatrick has been posted to Hong Kong to bolster CBC's coverage of a dynamic region of the world. Hong Kong is known as an international financial centre, but there is much more to it than that, and it has close connections to Canada. The city of seven million hosts nearly 300,000 Canadians, and about 500,000 people of Hong Kong descent make their home in Canada. Meagan is a senior online writer who covers national news and federal politics in CBC's Ottawa bureau. Follow her on Twitter @fitzpatrick_m

The prospect of the United States becoming a net exporter of oil and gas is another reason why Canada must find new customers, Baird added.

"As a matter of market realities we're going to have to seek new markets for that and that's why a pipeline to the Pacific coast is tremendously important," he said.

Free trade future with China?

Baird said the Canada-China foreign investment protection and promotion agreement was a step in the right direction and he did not rule out the idea of eventually signing a free trade agreement with China.

"I think we were pleasantly surprised by China's interest in looking at a potential free trade agreement with Canada and that's something we've been reflecting on since then over the past year," he said. "We don't have a trade agreement with an economy  like China's at this point but there's obviously a lot of interest at looking what we can do to work with China on increased trade both ways."

Baird said that Canadian values, including human rights and rule of law, are not being left behind when pursuing economic ties with China and that the government is striking a good balance between the two. He and his cabinet colleagues are able to have "respectful dialogue" with their Chinese counterparts on these issues, he said.

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Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says Canada is striking a balance with China when it comes to ecnonomic development and promoting Canadian values such as human rights. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

In an interview after his talk Baird said he applauds China for backing the latest round of United Nations sanctions against North Korea, a country that must be isolated until its leaders in Pyongyang see the world is serious he said.

Tension on the Korean peninsula has been rising since North Korea launched a nuclear test last month and now its leader Kim Jung-un is talking about launching a pre-emptive attack on the United States and South Korea.

"In recent years certainly North Korea has gone beyond rhetoric. They've sunk a South Korean vessel, bombed a South Korean island, so when we hear this type of rhetoric, when we see the type of provocative actions they've taken, I think civilized people everywhere are deeply concerned," he said.

Baird said the sanctions should send a message to Pyongyang and that Canada will continue to work with its allies on the developing situation.

Baird had little to say about comments by former prime minister Jean Chretien that Canada has lost its international stature since Stephen Harper and the Conservatives took power.

"Obviously there'll be political differences, I wouldn't have expected him to come out and endorse Canada's foreign policy or any policies of this government," said Baird. "I'm not going to get in a fight with Mr.Chretien."