Canada's bid to negotiate China trade deal not affected by clause in trade pact with US, Mexico: Justin Trudeau

SINGAPORE – A clause that calls on signatories of the US-Mexico-Canada trade pact to notify the others if they enter trade talks with a “non-market” economy will not affect Canada’s ongoing efforts to negotiate a trade deal with China.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the comments when answering a question from BBC presenter Sharanjit Leyl at a dialogue at the National University of Singapore (NUS) on Thursday (Nov 15).

The trilateral deal known as USMCA, which replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), stipulates that if a member country enters a free trade deal with a non-market economy, it has to notify the others three months before negotiations begin. The other members can quit within six months to form their own bilateral trade pact.

The clause is widely seen as an attempt by the United States to restrict its partners from signing trade deals with Beijing.

On Thursday, Mr Trudeau said the clause “does not prevent (Canada) from doing anything that we are already doing” in its trade negotiations with China.

“I don’t see that as a challenge… cancelling and moving back from free trade is something that comes at a very very heavy political and economic price,” he said.

“(It ensures) an element of transparency, we have to keep our Nafta partners informed on how we are doing, which I think is only fair,” said Mr Trudeau, who is in Singapore for the Asean summit as a guest of the Asean chair.

At the event attended by about 400 NUS students and staff, Mr Trudeau also addressed concerns about whether the US’ divided Congress, which recently saw Democrats take control of the House of Respresentatives, will approve the USMCA agreement.

Noting that Canada is the top export destination for more than 30 American states, he said: “I understand there is a political context that is going to be worked through, but everyone wants to see their folks in their home town, their communities do better, and that is what is going to happen with a smart trade deal like this one.”

A student asked Mr Trudeau about how Canada strikes a balance between working with countries to secure economic growth while speaking up for human rights, in the light of its decision last month to revoke the honorary Canadian citizenship of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to stop the persecution of the Rohingya minority.

In his reply, Mr Trudeau cited China, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.

He said he had raised the issue of China’s Uighur Muslim minority during bilateral talks with China’s Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday. At the United Nations earlier this month, China had faced calls from Western governments to end the detention of Uighur Muslims in re-education camps.

Mr Trudeau added that he had brought up extrajudicial killings with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte at an Asean meeting last year.

Striking a balance is certainly challenging when it comes to Saudi Arabia, an important regional player, he noted. The Middle Eastern country had come under criticism for the death last month of dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

It is a careful balancing act, said the Canadian leader, and Canada will always try and engage countries on these issues, while building a working relationship that allows it to nudge these countries forward on rights issues.

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