PM fails to ex­port trade agenda

So why in­sist on strat­egy that isn’t work­ing?

Regina Leader-Post - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN IVISON jivi­son@na­tion­al­ Twit­­sonJ

Justin Trudeau’s last day in China started with an eye-dot­ting cer­e­mony, the tra­di­tion of mark­ing the eyes of dancers’ lion cos­tumes with sym­bolic blood.

Chi­nese tra­di­tion sug­gests the dots — red, sym­bol­iz­ing fire, life and good luck — awaken and tame the lion.

The cer­e­mony also gave birth to a thou­sand tor­tured metaphors from my col­leagues about how the prime min­is­ter had failed to tame the Chi­nese and per­suade them to fall into line with his pro­gres­sive trade agenda.

Trudeau left China with­out the agree­ment to launch free trade talks that had seemed so fea­si­ble on his ar­rival in Bei­jing, though in his clos­ing press con­fer­ence Thurs­day the prime min­is­ter de­clared vic­tory.

“We have taken pos­i­tive steps toward a strength­ened part­ner­ship. We have made a lot of progress,” he said.

But that’s a per­spec­tive un­sup­ported by the facts.

The Cana­dian del­e­ga­tion ar­rived in the be­lief that the Chi­nese had agreed to a frame­work that in­cluded sep­a­rate chap­ters on the en­vi­ron­ment, labour stan­dards, state-owned en­ter­prises and pub­lic pro­cure­ment — pre-con­di­tions laid down by Trudeau dur­ing his visit last year, and ap­par­ently ac­cepted by the Chi­nese.

How­ever, while Chi­nese trade of­fi­cials may have deemed the pro­gres­sive trade agenda co­pacetic, it was not ac­cept­able to Pre­mier Li Ke­qiang, with whom Trudeau met Mon­day. This raises ob­vi­ous ques­tions about the ad­vice the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice was get­ting from its em­bassy in Bei­jing, and in par­tic­u­lar from its am­bas­sador, former Lib­eral cabi­net min­is­ter John McCal­lum.

In the event, it was Cana­dian de­mands on labour stan­dards that proved the stum­bling block.

Ot­tawa wanted their in­clu­sion as the start­ing point for ne­go­ti­a­tion; the pre­mier in­ter­preted the pre-con­di­tion as a slip­pery slope toward an equiv­a­lent of the Cana­dian Labour Code, with its pro­vi­sions for col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and oc­cu­pa­tional health and safety stan­dards.

The two sides spun in cir­cles on this point for days, and time sim­ply ran out.

The prime min­is­ter ex­plained the rea­son­ing be­hind his hard line dur­ing Thurs­day’s press con­fer­ence. “Trade deals must ben­e­fit cit­i­zens, not just multi­na­tion­als or a coun­try’s bot­tom line,” he said. “That is the only way to move for­ward ef­fec­tively.

“The al­ter­na­tive is no trade deals at all be­cause of the ris­ing feel­ings of in­ward think­ing, fear, pro­tec­tion­ism and na­tion­al­ism.”

Need­less to say, the “cit­i­zens first” view is not shared in a coun­try that is de­ter­mined to shake off cen­turies of West­ern hege­mony and chart its own course.

“We are not ask­ing Ot­tawa to share the same ideas as us,” said an editorial in the state mouth­piece English­language news­pa­per the Global Times. “China is not in a rush to de­velop its trade with Canada.”

The Chi­nese would like to strike a business deal sim­i­lar to the one reached with Aus­tralia. They clearly do not want to im­port Trudeau’s “pro­gres­sive” val­ues.

An agree­ment was close af­ter Li and Trudeau dined to­gether Mon­day night — there were sug­ges­tions that one may even have been signed on Tues­day, be­fore Trudeau met Chi­nese pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping.

But the prime min­is­ter left China empty-handed, just as he left Viet­nam last month hav­ing failed to con­clude the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship deal.

With the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment also up on bricks, it seems Trudeau’s pro­gres­sive trade val­ues are in trou­ble.

The Canada-China relationship will con­tinue to grow in­cre­men­tally; bi­lat­eral trade was up 14 per cent in the first 10 months of this year. But Cana­dian busi­nesses that met with Trudeau in Bei­jing made clear the po­ten­tial for a star­burst of ac­tiv­ity if tar­iffs are elim­i­nated and reg­u­la­tions eased. None of them ex­pressed con­cerns about China’s labour stan­dards or gen­der-equal­ity pro­vi­sions.

Labour con­di­tions in China will im­prove of their own ac­cord as the coun­try moves fur­ther up the value chain.

They do things dif­fer­ently here. This week saw the maiden voy­age of the new C919 jet­liner from Com­mer­cial Air­craft of China, or Co­mac. It is a state-owned en­ter­prise and the jet is viewed as a na­tional project, part of China’s longcher­ished am­bi­tion to re­gain past glory through the man­u­fac­tur­ing process.

This is an $11-tril­lion econ­omy that is ex­pand­ing steadily at nearly seven per cent a year. The Chi­nese lead­er­ship is jug­gling rapid trans­for­ma­tion in a coun­try with a pop­u­la­tion of 1.4 bil­lion — to put that in per­spec­tive, it’s 1,400 mil­lion peo­ple, com­pared to Canada’s 36 mil­lion.

They clearly did not warm to Trudeau’s hec­tor­ing on how to run their econ­omy, some­thing of which the prime min­is­ter was surely aware.

So why is he so in­sis­tent on a strat­egy that is not work­ing? It all car­ries the whiff of do­mes­tic pol­i­tics.

In an arm­chair dis­cus­sion at the For­tune Global Fo­rum Thurs­day, Trudeau talked about try­ing to find an “in­ter­face” be­tween two dif­fer­ent eco­nomic sys­tems to mu­tual ben­e­fit. “Par­tic­u­larly with a coun­try that is as sig­nif­i­cant … an eco­nomic pow­er­house like China, we need to be re­as­sured that the val­ues, in­ter­ests and jobs that Cana­di­ans hold dear fit in with that trade deal,” he said.

Of course, gov­ern­ments need to strike good deals that es­tab­lish trans­par­ent rules and pre­dictabil­ity. But it seems that what the prime min­is­ter is more con­cerned about is be­ing able to win sup­port from pro­gres­sive vot­ers who might not oth­er­wise sup­port trade deals.

The Chi­nese like Canada, but not be­cause it is an open and ac­cept­ing so­ci­ety. They re­spect fa­mil­ial ties, so ap­pre­ci­ate this prime min­is­ter and the role his fa­ther played in gain­ing ac­cep­tance for the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic in­ter­na­tion­ally in the 1970s. They re­mem­ber Canada pro­vid­ing wheat cred­its at a time when China was re­cov­er­ing from the Great Leap For­ward.

But we have let them down in the past too.

As Guy Saint-Jac­ques, Canada’s former am­bas­sador in China, said last week, the Harper gov­ern­ment backed away from full-blown free trade ne­go­ti­a­tions in 2012. “China is stand­ing at the al­tar but won’t wait for­ever,” he said. “If we don’t ne­go­ti­ate now, af­ter four rounds of ex­ploratory talks, they will say ‘It’s déjà vu all over again.’ ”

It may be that the dif­fer­ences be­tween the two coun­tries and their con­trast­ing sys­tems can be re­solved. But that will re­quire one side to be more pli­ant.

It will take more than a dab of red paint be­tween the eyes to turn the Chi­nese lion into a lamb.



Justin Trudeau takes part in an eye-dot­ting cer­e­mony to awaken the lion on a tour of the Chen Clan Acad­emy in Guangzhou on Thurs­day. Trudeau left China later in the day with­out an agree­ment to launch free trade talks.


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