Chrystia Freeland set for trade talks with China in 2017
Canada also committed to 'increasing' trade relationship with the U.K. post-Brexit, trade minister says
International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland says Canada is tentatively booked to begin talks with China in February as the two countries explore a free trade agreement.
In September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced the start of exploratory talks with the goal of doubling trade between the two countries by 2025.
"China is very much a focus," Freeland told CBC Radio's The House in a year-end interview.
She's also hoping to hold talks with the U.K.'s trade secretary, Liam Fox, as that country wiggles out of the European Union.
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British Prime Minister Theresa May has said the U.K. will trigger the formal process for leaving the European Union before the end of March.
"It's going to be really hard to figure out a new trading relationship with Britain, with anyone, until it knows the conditions of its relationship with the EU," said Freeland.
The U.K. was among the strongest supporters of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), the mammoth trade accord between Canada and the EU, and she said the country will be covered by it when the deal enters into force.
"We are committed, and so are the British, to maintaining or increasing that closeness of a trading relationship," Freeland said. "I'm hopeful that Dr. Fox is going to come and visit me in Canada early in the new year."
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Lumber deal 'not over till it's over'
On this side of the Western Hemisphere, the often-fraught softwood lumber file will likely keep the trade minister busy with discussions.
The previous agreement expired in the fall of 2015. A one-year standstill period prohibiting trade actions expired Oct. 12. The U.S. Commerce Department agreed earlier this month to begin an investigation of Canadian lumber trade practices following a complaint by U.S. industry.
"It's not over till it's over," Freeland said. "We're still talking."
Freeland said the U.S. sent in a new proposal at the start of December and Canada is working on its response. Those negotiations, however, have been with the outgoing Obama administration. Donald Trump will take over after his inauguration on Jan. 20.
"A softwood lumber deal can only happen if the deal gets the sign-off of the U.S. industry and they are part of the conversation and they will be there when the administration changes," she said.
"Having said that, we need to be realistic; we need to remember that softwood lumber is a notoriously tough issue in the Canada-U.S. trading relationship.
"We've been having occasional tiffs about this for more than a century."
A leaked document purported to represent the thoughts of Trump's transition team included adding softwood lumber to NAFTA.
The previous softwood lumber agreement was a single-industry deal between Canada and the U.S. only. Folding it into comprehensive, continent-wide talks would be complicated.
"This is a more protectionist moment in the United States and in a lot of the world than we've seen in a long time and that certainly does complicate the conversation, but we're negotiating in good faith."