Liberals try to assuage fears ahead of possible free trade deal with China, documents show

Canada's Liberal government is reaching out to calm fears about a potential free trade deal with China as it continues exploratory talks with the Asian superpower, documents show.

Ex-ambassador says Liberals 'substituting hopes and aspirations for a solid plan'

Prime Minister Trudeau hosted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Montreal last September. The federal government wants Canadians to express their goals and concerns as part of broad consultations on a possible trade deal with China. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Canada's Liberal government is reaching out to calm fears about a potential free trade deal with China as it continues exploratory talks with the Asian superpower, documents show.

The documents, provided by Global Affairs Canada after an Access to Information request, show the government is confronting long-standing concerns from business and other stakeholders, including issues related to intellectual property rights, transparency, the bulk sale of water and human rights.

But one of Canada's former ambassadors to China, David Mulroney, calls the documents a "sales job." 

The two countries have held several meetings since exploratory talks were formally launched earlier this year.

During that time, the federal government began broad consultations at home, holding meetings with hundreds of stakeholders across the country, according to the documents.

Consultations included businesses, industry associations, academics, labour unions, non-governmental organizations and Indigenous groups.

A summary of the results of these consultations says that while Canadian businesses generally support a potential free trade pact with China, they have some persistent concerns the government concedes will be challenging to address, including questions surrounding issues like non-tariff barriers, technical standards and transparency.

The document goes on to list enforcement of intellectual property in China as difficult, along with concerns over a level playing field with Chinese-state owned enterprises.

'No confidence'

Mulroney says he was struck by what was missing in the handout, namely a plan for dealing with China on issues beyond trade, which he argues must be part of Canada's overall approach to the Asian superpower.

"I think it's failing to face up to how big a challenge engaging China is. China is changing day by day under its current president Xi Jingping. It's becoming even more assertive, even more unfriendly to human rights advocates and those who value free speech, " Mulroney told CBC News in an interview.

Mulroney was appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2009 and left his post in 2012. The ex-diplomat, now at the University of Toronto, is not directly involved in the early trade talks.

"Getting China right is not a trade policy question. It's a really complicated foreign policy question, one that's much more complicated than anything we've dealt with in the past," he added. "And the consultation document gives me no confidence that we've begun thinking along those lines."

'Progessive' trade

A broad range of concerns is outlined in a 35-page question and answer document handed out during the public consultation meetings. Three pages are devoted to human rights concerns in particular.

Under the question, "How does Canada express its concerns about human rights in China?" there are 13 bullet points, including a list of nine instances when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the subject with various Chinese leaders.

Mulroney is critical of this section, calling it a laundry list.

"It's not a strategy, it's just 'don't worry we raise it.' And that's not enough," he said.

Former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney says the Liberal consultation plan for a free trade deal with the Asian superpower looks like a 'sales job.' (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

The document goes on to say human rights are part of the exploratory talks.

"Our ongoing exploratory discussions seek to clarify how Canada and China may be able to work together toward a progressive 21st century trade agreement," the document reads.

That "progressive" language is a new catch phrase of the Trudeau government, showing up in speeches and official releases related to most of the trade negotiations Canada's engaging in around the world, including the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement next month.

The final page outlines how the government defines a progressive trade agreement: one that includes "strong provisions" in areas such as labour, environment and gender.

But Mulroney argues those are not likely in any trade deal with China.

"That's a real stretch. That's a real long shot," he said. "That's substituting hopes and aspirations for a solid plan."

Boon for agriculture?

As well as addressing these concerns, the document also points to potential opportunities that might result from a free trade agreement with China, including in agriculture and agri-food products.

China has a growing demand for agricultural commodities, but its current tariffs are high. Canadian wheat imports face a 65 per cent levy, for example.

Mulroney says the documents look like a blueprint for a deal with another country such as India or elsewhere, not China.

Canadian wheat exports to China face a tariff as high as 65%. The agriculture sector could be a big winner if the federal government successfully negotiates a trade agreement with the giant Asian market. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"It was very much what you'd expect for a slightly controversial free trade agreement with any country that has some industrial capacity that might threaten Canada's own. It didn't betray the kind of deeper thinking and fresher thinking that I think it required."

The handout does shed some light on the question of when the government will decide if it will move ahead with formal free trade talks.

While there is no preset number of exploratory talks, the government wants to update Canadians before its first mandate ends in October 2019.

In a statement emailed to CBC News, Chantal Gagnon, a spokesperson for International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne, said promoting human rights and a rules-based approach to Canada's engagement with China are integral to the government's foreign policy.

Dismissing the "enormous potential" of China's market for Canada's middle class is "unrealistic, nor is it a plan to grow the economy or engage this burgeoning region," she wrote.

Canadians expect the government to engage China "with our eyes wide open to the challenges," she wrote. "We are doing just that."


Susan Lunn has been covering politics in Ottawa since 2002. She has a special interest in health and the environment.


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