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Justin Trudeau set to head to China in December to open free trade talks

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Updated: 09:19 GMT, Nov 19, 2017 | Published: 09:19 GMT, Nov 19, 2017 |
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Justin Trudeau  Xi Jinping

 Justin Trudeau is expected to announce he is heading to Beijing early next month to launch free trade talks with China.

The trip has not been finalized but diplomatic sources suggest he will head east in the first week of December.

The Prime Minister has just returned from Asia, where he committed Canada to the “core principles” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between 11 countries including Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

But Canada remains reluctant to sign on to a final TPP agreement, specifically over concerns that weaker rules of origin on auto components than those in force under the North American Free Trade Agreement would complicate the ongoing NAFTA renegotiation with the United States and Mexico.

The main prize of a TPP agreement would be preferential access to the Japanese market for Canada’s resource and agri-food industries. But Trudeau is wary of undermining the NAFTA talks for limited gains under TPP.

China is a different story. The belief that Canadian exporters need to have preferential access to growing Asian markets like China is considered worth the risk that launching negotiations may upset the Trump administration.

There is a growing belief in the Trudeau government that Trump’s attempts to blow up NAFTA will end up in a stalemate with Congress, ensuring that the status quo prevails. If that proves to be the case, launching talks with China would be worth the gamble.

Formal exploratory talks wrapped up in July and the Chinese are keen to open negotiations, in line with President Xi Jinping’s promotion of globalization and open markets.

Trudeau has had warm relations with Xi’s government since coming to power, in some measure because the Trudeau name has carried weight in Beijing since the current Prime Minister’s father opened diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic in 1970.

Opposition parties have been critical of the Liberal government for allowing Chinese companies to acquire potentially sensitive technologies, as with the recent takeover of B.C. firm Norsat.

Suspicions about Chinese motives, amid reports of widespread industrial spying, and concerns about lack of reciprocal investment opportunities dissuaded Stephen Harper’s Conservative government from pursuing free trade talks in 2012.

Public opinion remains split on the issue and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has made clear he opposes opening talks.

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