International Trade Minister Chyrstia Freeland says that China and India are priorities for the Liberal government’s trade agenda, as they are “two huge, growing markets.”

In an interview with CTV’s Question Period, Freeland emphasized the need for Canada to connect with growing markets in the global economy, especially amidst a “sluggish” economy at home.

“The prime minister has instructed me to work very, very hard to open up economic opportunities for Canada in emerging markets, specifically singling out China and India,” said Freeland.

“These are two huge, growing markets, areas, where at a time the global economy is not growing as quickly as we would like, we’re still seeing tremendous economic growth.”

As instructed in her ministerial mandate letter, Freeland says she will work hard to develop the “Asian opportunity” on the trade file. She added that she has already had “very productive meetings” with both China’s minister of commerce and India’s trade minister.

Freeland’s comments come as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government prepares for a major trade mission to China and India. Trudeau is likely to travel to the two countries in March after bilateral meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, according to a report by The Globe and Mail earlier this week. The trip is part of a longer-term goal of reaching a free-trade deal with China, said the report.

While the Conservative Party generally supports free trade, the Official Opposition is urging the government to put safeguards in place to ensure a deal is transparent. The NDP is even more cautious.

  • Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement: “China is obviously the big elephant in the room when it comes to these kinds of deals and you have to make sure that whatever deal is done with China is transparent, that the goals that the Chinese are committing themselves to are transparently accounted for."
  • NDP MP Rachel Blaney: “Our concern is simply, are they (the government) going to negotiate a trade agreement that benefits, that protects Canadian workers, and looks at making sure that we have a strong Canada? Right now, we’re giving away too much and we need to protect our country.”

Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, recently co-authorized a study on a Canada-China free trade agreement, which will be released next week. Speaking to Question Period, Dawson summarized her thoughts on the file:

  • Canada stands to benefit in a huge way from a free-trade agreement with China: “Billions and billions of dollars every year, especially in pork, in lumber, in canola, in all of the areas we need to diversify our exports into."
  • If Canada is concerned about the effects of a free-trade deal with China on its relationship with the U.S., Dawson said there isn't much to worry about: “The United States already has a high level economic dialogue and framework with China … It’s way ahead of the level of cooperation that Canada and China have, so I don’t think that we would put ourselves in an antagonistic position vis-à-vis the United States.”

TPP consultations will continue next week

Freeland said the Liberal government has not yet been invited to sign the Trans Pacific Partnership and has also not decided whether it will do so. Ministers from the 12 countries that have negotiated the massive trade deal, including Canada, are expected to sign the agreement in New Zealand in early February.

Freeland said she and Parliamentary Secretary David Lametti will continue cross-country consultations on the trade deal next week, in addition to discussions she has already had with the ministers of agriculture, innovation, health and employment.

“When it comes to the signing, what is really important for people to understand is that is just a technical step that allows people to continue having consultations. The really important question is ratification and we have committed to a full parliamentary debate, including committee study, ahead of that step.”

Speaking to Question Period, experts agreed that Canada has too much to lose by not signing the TPP:

  • Former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. Michael Kergin: “We don’t gain a huge amount by getting into the TPP, except access to the Japanese market, which is significant. But we lose enormously by not being part of the TPP… Our competitors in Asia will start to be able to export into Mexico and the United States.”
  • Canadian Global Affairs Institute Vice-President Colin Robertson: “This is a no-brainer from a Canadian perspective. Remember, 60 cents of every dollar that we raise as Canadians, we generate through trade. We need to have access to the markets of the world … We’ve got to be piece of this. There’s no really alternative.”