Analysis

ASEAN summit over, PM Trudeau arrives in Papua New Guinea for APEC summit

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent Friday morning at a hawker’s market. But as he jetted off from one Southeast Asian summit to his next, he seemed more like the guy with something to sell.

Canada's PM wraps up Singapore business swing, stresses Liberal agenda of diversification, progressive change

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with children as he visits the Adam Road Food Centre, a market in Singapore, on Friday. Trudeau has spent his trip to Southeast Asia trying to sell Canada in rapidly growing Asia-Pacific markets. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau spent his final morning in Singapore on Friday at a hawker's market. But as the Canadian prime minister jetted off from one Southeast Asian summit to his next — the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) talks in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea — he seemed like the guy with something to sell.

Trudeau's spin around the food stalls, buying his morning juice and chatting up local families, felt like a campaign stop — but people there can't vote for him.  

He came to Singapore looking for different kinds of support. And it's not clear Canada has been invited into Southeast Asia's inner circle of influence just yet.

"In terms of areas that are particularly important and exciting, there's no question that the Asia-Pacific is, for me, one of the big places we need to be," Trudeau told about 400 students and guests at the National University of Singapore on Thursday.

But if the East Asia Summit (EAS) was where Canada needed to be, that didn't work out. Canada wasn't invited to the 18-country regional forum this year.

"Membership of the East Asian Summit is a determination to be made by members of the summit," Trudeau told reporters.

Never mind meetings on the sidelines of a summit. On Thursday, as the key EAS talks were held with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, Trudeau wasn't even in the stands. He had his own itinerary of trade promotion meetings and speaking engagements elsewhere.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks ahead of the APEC summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on Friday. It's not clear whether he and Trudeau will have any one-on-one time during the high-level gathering. (Mast Irham/Reuters)

That's not to say Canada's lobbying to prove its priorities align with the EAS didn't continue, particularly at the Wednesday evening ASEAN gala that key EAS players attended. Trudeau spoke directly with New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern, said to be a kindred spirit on his progressive agenda.

The EAS released five statements on Thursday. One, on fighting marine plastics pollution, lined up with a statement Canada and China released after Trudeau met Premier Li Keqiang Wednesday.

Two other statements, on cybersecurity and smart cities, mirrored the topics of the memoranda of understanding officials exchanged as Trudeau posed for photos with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday.

The EAS also issued statements on countering terrorism and safeguarding nuclear materials.

New markets, tough decisions

As a small-market trading nation, Canada's pursuing economic growth by hooking on to this region of rapid infrastructure development and emerging middle-class consumers.

Business leaders teed up to speak with Canadian reporters mentioned the importance of personal relationship building in Asia.

Trudeau's familial link to the founder of Singapore may have helped break the ice for the parade of potential investors, students and entrepreneurs the prime minister met over the past four days.

The Liberal government's trade agenda has two mantras: diversification and progressive change.

As Trudeau's news conference Thursday revealed, sometimes one conflicts with the other.

Journalists had questions about whether Canadians should still be doing business with Saudi Arabia after the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

They wanted more details on not only Canada's trade push with China — there's not much of a difference between what's happening now and what would be happening if the two countries were in formal trade talks, the PM said —  but the diplomatic push it's mounting in support of China's Uighur minority, something that's now prompted a public rebuke from Beijing.

Trudeau is greeted by Charles Abel, deputy prime minister and treasurer of Papua New Guinea as he arrives in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on Friday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

And reporters wanted to know whether Canada would do more to help the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, an ASEAN member in the hot seat for failing to protect human rights and keep minorities safe from violence.

When Trudeau told ASEAN members at a working lunch Wednesday that he was hoping to move from exploratory discussions to full-fledged trade negotiations by next spring, progressive trade proponents may have felt a little twitchy.

No 1-on-1 with China's president?

Not that the prime minister denies the incompatibility of progressive values with the way some Asian countries do business. At these same summits last year, raising extrajudicial killings in the Philippines scratched a valuable helicopter contract for Canada.

"Do we engage with people who don't agree with our values? Do we wait for them to clean up their act?" Trudeau said when a student asked him about this. "Or do you say, through engaging in careful ways, we will have the capacity to have those conversations?"

Trudeau's portrayal of his one-on-one with Chinese Premier Li was all about balancing rights advocacy and trade. But it's not clear he'll have a chance to continue the conversation with China's president at APEC: Trudeau said he doesn't have any confirmed one-on-one time with Xi Jingping.

World leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, and U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, second from right, gather for a group photo at the East Asia Summit in Singapore on Thursday. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

In this region, those willing to have a more narrow conversation, specifically about goods trade, are getting closer to a regional trade bloc. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership would bind the huge Chinese market to the 10 ASEAN countries, as well as Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India, which is holding out at the moment.

Reports on the state of RCEP talks in Singapore this week described "tremendous progress" and a push to conclude talks in 2019, assuming India's famously protectionist farm, steel and textile sectors come around to the idea of lowering barriers with archrival China.

The RCEP could someday include about 40 per cent of the world's GDP, carving global trade into three dominant blocks:

  • RCEP in Asia.
  • The European Union's common market.
  • The reworked NAFTA (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA).

The deal meant to bridge across this, had the U.S. remained on board, was the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Pence, like Trudeau, has attended both Asia-Pacific summits so far. During a gala event on Wednesday night, the two briefly discussed Canada's objections to the Trump administration's enduring steel and aluminum tariffs. (Yong Teck Lim/Reuters)

During the ASEAN summit, Vietnam ratified the reworked deal that remains, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), bringing to seven the number of countries — Canada and Japan included — that start dropping tariffs and embracing common standards as of Dec. 30.

"CPTPP is something we worked really hard on," Trudeau told another student.

Amid tense finish-line gamesmanship at APEC last year, it wasn't a sure thing that Canada would sign on.

"We got improvements over the deal negotiated by our predecessors because we wanted it to be the right deal for Canadians," Trudeau said.

What's next at APEC?

Trudeau said Canada's pursuit of win-win trade deals is a "contrast to others who have a more negative approach to trade."

"Others" meaning: America? One presumes.

Pence is attending both summits, and so far Trudeau has spoken to him once briefly, at a gala event Wednesday night. (He raised, again, Canada's objections to the persistence of steel tariffs now that NAFTA talks are over.)

Canada put itself closer to the centre of conversations about reforming the World Trade Organization by hosting an early meeting of 13 like-minded nations in Ottawa last month. WTO reform has been mentioned by not only Trudeau, but other leaders as a key agenda item at APEC, where unlike at the Ottawa meeting, China and the U.S. will be around the table.

Japan, a key ally in the WTO reform process, has agreed to a bilateral meeting with Canada at APEC, Trudeau's revised itinerary now shows.

He's also set for face time with his counterpart from Malaysia (which still needs some persuading to ratify the CPTPP) and Australia (which may need more fence-mending to ensure no hard feelings remain from last year's APEC unpleasantness.)

Trudeau's expected to talk about climate change when he meets with Pacific Islands leaders on Saturday afternoon, an on-brand topic for his Liberal government and an easier conversation to have in Papua New Guinea than back in Canada, where conservatives are lining up to fight his carbon pricing.

But Trudeau's focus at APEC? More salesmanship, it appears.

"We will be continuing to talk about trade ties," he told reporters. "APEC is an economic summit."

About the Author

Janyce McGregor

Parliamentary Bureau

Janyce McGregor has covered Canadian politics for CBC News since 2001. Send news tips to: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca