With no formal trade talks, Trudeau leaves international trade minister in Beijing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada will continue to work toward the goal of starting formal trade negotiations with China despite continued differences over a number of significant issues, even if that means leaving his trade minister behind.

Work needed to narrow differences in Canada-China trade talks, including gender rights

Trudeau took part in a business round table in Beijing on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada will continue to work toward the goal of starting formal trade negotiations with China despite continued differences over a number of significant issues, even if that means leaving his trade minister behind.

The prime minister wrapped up two days of high-level meetings in Beijing on Tuesday, telling reporters at a news conference that both countries remain committed to the goal of a comprehensive free trade deal.

While Trudeau is now in Guangzhou, International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne stayed behind in Beijing — a last-minute decision as Canada tries to reach an agreement to begin formal trade talks with China.

Champagne was to travel to the southern Chinese city with Trudeau on Tuesday to take part in an international trade conference.

But with the efforts to advance trade talks with China, he stayed behind. It was so late that members of his staff were pulled off the prime minister's plane just before it was to take off.

Government officials said there was enough "willingness" to continue with talks so it was decided Champagne would remain at the table.

"We will continue to deal with multiple different ways of benefiting our two countries as we work together, whether or not there are formal negotiations or exploratory talks," Trudeau said.

"We are constantly engaged with our Chinese counterparts to ensure there are opportunities for our citizens."

Gender rights a sticking point

Trudeau met with both Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

But a widely anticipated announcement of opening formal trade talks didn't materialize after Trudeau spent several hours with Li on Monday.

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The sticking points appear to be Canada's insistence that labour and gender rights be part of any deal.

Trudeau acknowledged Tuesday that progress now is being measured in a series of piecemeal agreements that will, for example, increase Canadian exports of beef and canola, and improve bilateral co-operation in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"I think the more we engage with each other, the more we sign agreements that show a benefit to Canadians, benefits to Chinese consumers, that affect our economies in mutually beneficial ways, the better we will be able to move quickly and thoroughly on eventual trade negotiations."

'I'm not getting discouraged'

There might have been no deal to begin talks, but there was lots of dealing going on at the Beijing hotel that served as headquarters to the Canadian delegation.

Trudeau and a group of cabinet ministers took part in a series of meetings Tuesday morning between Canadian and Chinese business representatives. But several of the Canadians lingering the hallways afterward noted that Champagne was not among them.

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"The minister was active in trade negotiations all morning, so we weren't able to meet with him," said Preston Swafford, president of the CANDU division of SNC-Lavalin, which is looking to expand operations in China.

The president of the Canola Council of Canada, Jim Everson, said it's important to move ahead despite Monday's apparent stalemate over talks, as the Chinese market is just as important to his growers as the United States.

"If we can have a predictable and tariff-free environment, the growth we've seen in the U.S. — and it's been substantial — for the canola industry, it would be the same with China."

Canada's ambassador to China, John McCallum, stopped briefly to talk to reporters as well.

"I'm not getting discouraged," he said. "There's more work to do and we're on it."

Human rights also raised

Trudeau also told reporters that he raised human rights and consular issues with Li on Monday, and said he would do so with President Xi when the two met privately late on Tuesday before his flight to Guangzhou.

"The nature of the strong and constructive relationship means we can have frank discussions without endangering the positive relationship," he said.

Trudeau didn't elaborate, but Canadian winery owner John Chang remains in jail over a customs dispute, while Uighur-Canadian activist Huseyin Celil has been imprisoned for a decade, despite Canadian efforts to have both released.

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Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was the CBC's national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

with files from the CBC's Katie Simpson