The Current

Trudeau's 'progressive' trade agenda with China seen as arrogant, say critics

"We like to think of ourselves as being nice and the rest of the world likes us but when it comes to these trade agreements ... we're coming across as being patronizing."
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Dec. 4, 2017. Trudeau has just returned from China without a promise to start formal talks on a comprehensive trade deal with the country. (Fred Dufour/Pool photo via the Associated Press)

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a high-minded approach to trade in his recent four-day trip to China.

The Liberal government's commitment to progressive trade seeks to strike a bargain for the best of both worlds: access to lucrative markets like China while protecting women, the environment and labour laws among other things. 

"If we move forward with simply straight, classic trade deals that focus on tariffs and barriers, then we are going to find ourselves in a world where protectionism and inward thinking is the only option," Trudeau said in China.

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Critics point to Trudeau's so-called "progressive" trade agenda elements as a stumbling block in moving forward toward a deal.

"I'm a huge supporter of progressive views on gender equality, human rights, environmental protections and labour conditions, but despite the nice-sounding rhetoric, trade agreements are just not effective in pushing that agenda forward," says Martha Hall Findlay, CEO of the Canada West Foundation, a think-tank that looks at Western Canadian issues.

She says trade agreements turn potential trade partners away.

"We like to think of ourselves as being nice and the rest of the world likes us. But when it comes to these trade agreements ... we're coming across as being patronizing, we're coming across as arrogant and frankly, we're coming across as being naive," Hall Findlay tells The Current's Friday host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"The rest of the world is playing chess and we're coming with our checkers."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, Dec. 5, that his country has high hopes for a trade agreement with China, but won't be rushing into negotiations that could affect their economies for generations to come. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

Wenran Jiang, UBC's senior fellow at the Institute of Asian Research, agrees that Trudeau's approach is being perceived as smug and patronizing.

Jiang suggests he should have made it clear to China that Canada was not there to impose.

"Now, with the trip done, all his inner circle people, negotiating team, his company members, bureaucracy, and the general public should reflect on how we engage the emerging superpower that is in many ways ... a different political system, governance system."

Should Canada set aside its values to secure a trade deal?

Hall Findlay contends that Canada shouldn't refrain from questioning human rights issues in China, or signal that they agree with China in all matters, in order to secure a trade deal.

"We already trade with China," she says. "We haven't parked our values to engage in trade so far, so why would we all of a sudden feel as though we're parking our values by not insisting on a different change in order to enhance that trade?"

She says enhanced trade provides greater engagement which is a key component to trade — and that "greater engagement with the rest of the world has changed China dramatically,"

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains said his top priority is 'to move forward in a meaningful way to advance trade discussions between Canada and China.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development was also part Canada's delegation to China. Before Bains left, he outlined the government's objectives stating that the top priority of the trip was "to move forward in a meaningful way to advance trade discussions between Canada and China."

It's an objective that  David Lametti, MP for LaSalle-Émard-Verdun and Parliamentary Secretary to Bains says takes time.

"These relationships need to be built over time. This was the second annual meeting between leaders. Already, that's a good step. And it's pushing our agenda forward of engagement."

The Current did request interviews with Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and the Minister of International Trade François-Philippe Champagne. Neither was available. 

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman and Willow Smith.