On Trudeau's 2nd trip to China, time may be ripe to advance free trade

Justin Trudeau lifted off for China late Saturday afternoon after spending part of the day in British Columbia to campaign with the Liberal candidate in a local byelection.

China keen to show it can build relationships with West, as U.S. backs out of global engagement

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau departs from Vancouver en route to China on Saturday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau lifted off for China late Saturday afternoon after spending part of the day in British Columbia to campaign with the Liberal candidate in a local byelection.

The prime minister joined Gordon Hogg in South Surrey-White Rock, a riding the party hopes to take away from the Conservatives. The seat became vacant when former Tory MP Dianne Watts resigned to run for the leadership of the provincial Liberals.

Trudeau will spend four days in China in an effort to promote trade, tourism and closer business ties.

He will meet on Monday with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and on Tuesday with President Xi Jinping. Xi will also play host to the prime minister at a state dinner that night before Trudeau heads to Guangzhou in southern China, where he'll deliver the keynote address at the annual Fortune Global Forum.

Trudeau, left, and South Surrey-White Rock Liberal byelection candidate Gordie Hogg walk along the pier in White Rock, B.C., on Saturday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

That's the itinerary. But outside of the details of where he's going, and who he'll meet, Canadian officials have been mum on what to expect out of this trip, even though many in the business and diplomatic community believe the goal is to announce the beginning of formal negotiations with China for a free trade deal.

Fruitful time for free trade 

Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada's ambassador to China until 2016, says the time is ripe to start negotiations after four rounds of exploratory talks and extensive consultations with Canadian businesses.

"I think the Chinese were a bit surprised at the outset at what we were seeking, because they had said 'We will give you what we gave Australia and that would be good for you,'" Saint-Jacques said in an interview with CBC News. "But we said we have a lot more to offer in terms of high technology. And if I look at the needs of China, they are desperate to clean their environment and they would have that access."

Stewart Beck, the president of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, agrees.

"We have a great experience in the World Trade Organization and NAFTA.," he said this week in an interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

"And I'd say we are top of class when it comes to negotiating these kinds of agreements and I think that's critical to them. They want that type of relationship with a country like Canada."

The trip is expected to produce a number of business deals between Canadian and Chinese companies in the areas of clean technology, tourism and agri-food.

China's global ambitions

Saint-Jacques says the Chinese have bigger stakes in mind, and are pushing hard to begin negotiations with Canada to signal that the world's second-largest economy is willing to engage with Western economies, especially now that U.S. President Donald Trump seems more concerned with protectionist policies.

"We would be the first G7 country to negotiate a free trade agreement, and this would confirm that they are the new champion of globalization now that the U.S. is retrenching."

There are considerable risks should Canada proceed. Topping the list is the country's human rights record, which includes jailing Canadian winery owner John Chang over a customs dispute and the continued imprisonment of Huseyin Celil, a Uighur dissident China accuses of being a terrorist.

Trudeau meets Chinese President Xi Jinping during his one-week visit to China before the G20 Summit in Hangzhou in September 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien used to argue that it was always better to engage countries like China on multiple levels than to lecture them from the sidelines. Stephen Harper was less convinced, though his initial wariness toward China eased while he was in office.

Trudeau is following Chrétien's lead with this trip to China, his second since becoming prime minister in 2015.

Saint-Jacques says Canada-China relations now include regular visits, and the creation of regular meetings involving key officials in both countries to discuss issues such as trade, the environment and security.

Regular dialogue underway

"We now have in place the infrastructure for regular dialogue at the level of the prime ministers, between foreign ministers and another dialogue on the national security and rule-of-law questions that allows us to discuss sensitive consular cases and sensitive security issues."

The real challenge is to convince Canadians that dealings with China strike the right balance.

Beck believes the timing is right now to begin formal talks.

"Let's keep in mind that New Zealand and Australia have had deals for quite a while now. And in some ways it gives them a competitive advantage, particularly Australia where we compete directly in a number of products," he said.

"Certainly they have benefitted from having that agreement with China."

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is 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.