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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is escorted by his Thai counterpart, Yingluck Shinawatra, as he visits Government House in Bangkok on March 23, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is escorted by his Thai counterpart, Yingluck Shinawatra, as he visits Government House in Bangkok on March 23, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Opportunities

Harper sets Canada, Thailand on path to free-trade agreement Add to ...

Thailand’s prime minister’s hailed the possibility of free-trade negotiations with Canada on Thursday and welcomed Ottawa’s rediscovered interest in southeast Asia.

In her remarks, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra noted that it has been 15 years since a Canadian prime minister last made a bilateral visit to the nation of 66 million, which is among the world’s fastest growing economies.

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“This visit not only highlights the strong relations between our two countries but also reaffirms Canada’s re-engagement in Asia,” Ms. Shinawatra said after the two countries announced exploratory talks meant to determine if a trade pact is possible.

Jean Chrétien led the last official visit to Thailand when he brought along a Team Canada trade mission here.

Since coming to power in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has faced criticism that he’s neglected trade opportunities in Asia, particularly in China where his administration’s strident criticism on human rights led to a cooling of relations.

Mr. Harper restated his desire to diversify Canada’s trade away from the U.S. market and preferred not to dwell on the past.

“We are now embarking on a new and exciting era in our relations,” he said during a luncheon while toasting the possible trade deal with white grape juice.

“The commitments we are making on this trip lead us to being much closer partners, economic partners, security partners and of course social and cultural partners for decades to come.”

Canadian businessman John Darch, who owns Doi Chaang Coffee and has been doing business in the region for 26 years, says Canada’s private business interest in Thailand has been weak and was pleased to see the Harper government putting more emphasis on the country.

“We have probably not been as active as we could have been in this country,” he said. “I think the benefit of having a trade relationship with Thailand, which is in the heart of Asia, is substantial for Canada.”

“I think Canada is recognizing it, It’s important step forward.”

Ms. Shinawatra said the two discussed “how to bring our relations to a higher level,” and signalled Thailand’s interest in Canadian investment, particularly in electronics and aerospace.

The exploratory discussions will examine the potential economic benefits and how such an agreement can improve on the existing $3.5-billion a year trade relationship.

If such a deal can be struck, Mr. Harper said it would benefit farmers and businesses across Canada.

It is unclear when discussions could lead to actual free-trade talks.

If there is enough common ground Thailand would join a host of nations and regions, including the European Union and South Korea, that the Harper government is trying to court.

“We’ve made it our business to get back into the game of trade negotiations,” Mr. Harper said while noting his government has concluded deals with nine countries in the last six years.

“Obviously we have, and are in the process of launching agreements, throughout this region and around the world and I’m confident that some of these agreements will continue to move forward. I’m very confident about the agreement here.”

Experts say a free trade deal with Thailand would be of greater benefit to Canada because Thai tariffs are higher than those imposed by Ottawa.

Before the meeting, Mr. Harper signed a book of well wishes and presented flowers to the chamberlain of the country’s ailing king, Bhumibol Adulyadej who has reigned since 1946.

The king, who is also known as Rama IX, is credited with helping smooth the path for the country’s move towards democracy in the 1990s.

He has been in an extended care facility for years and questions about his health often dominate political speculation the country.

The two countries also announced a youth exchange agreement that will allow thousands of young people between the ages of 18 and 30 to gain knowledge and cultural skills.

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