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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a news conference following the G-20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, Tuesday June 19, 2012. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a news conference following the G-20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, Tuesday June 19, 2012. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

John Ibbitson

John Ibbitson: Pacific talks are Canada’s best ever opportunity for trade diversification Add to ...

Finally and formally, Canada has been invited to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. We are arriving just as things get interesting.

The talks are troubled. They could collapse. Even if they don’t collapse, the final agreement could be so riddled with exemptions that the deal essentially becomes meaningless. (Canadian dairy and poultry farmers, who are hoping to be granted one of those exemptions, would celebrate such an outcome.)

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Does that mean that Canada has joined the party just as it’s breaking up? Not necessarily. The dream of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is still alive. And every Canadian has a stake in its success.

President Barack Obama and other leaders had hoped to conclude an ambitious trade agreement among Pacific nations by the end of this year. They’re not even close.

The most optimistic estimates don’t envision a final text before the end of 2013, at best.

Internal resistance is growing in some countries. As details leak, critics seize on allegations that, for instance, the TPP will force Australians to pay more for prescription medicines.

“Do you think it would be in the government’s interests, or in Australia’s interests, for Australians to be paying large amounts more for medicine?” countered Australian Trade Minister Craig Emerson.

“Do you think we are really that stupid?”

But he also acknowledged that the toughest negotiations still lie ahead. Next year will be make-or-break for the talks. It could be break.

The TPP is, by its very nature, unbalanced. Some of the participating countries are small and poor, such as Vietnam. Some are small and rich, such as Singapore.

As well as the Asian participants, much the Anglosphere is involved (the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) but so are Mexico, Peru and Chile in Latin America. It can be difficult to find common cause.

The biggest problem is the United States. Yes, adding the world’s largest economy to the partnership hugely increased the TPP’s importance. But the Americans are setting the terms for the negotiations, and many countries don’t like those terms.

Some countries are balking at American demands for stricter intellectual property-rights protection.

There is huge resistance to an American demand that would allow corporations to sue governments for allegedly breaching the terms of the treaty.

And while the Americans want other countries, including Canada, to eliminate agricultural protections, they continue to assure their own farmers that, for example, the American sugar industry will still be protected.

Canadian officials grumble off the record that the Americans are trying to use the TPP talks to force Canada and Mexico to abandon protected sectors – not just in agriculture, but in culture and financial services – that were part of the original North American free-trade agreement .

Will these disagreements doom the TPP? Everyone, including Canadians, should hope not.

With the Doha round of global trade talks moribund, bilateral and regional agreements are the best hope for expanding global trade.

The TPP would encompass 685 million people, uniting North and South, East and West in a great, Pacific economic free-trade zone of the developed and the developing; of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists; of nations that border, not only the Pacific, but the Atlantic, the Indian, the Arctic and Antarctic oceans as well.

And once it was up and running, the invitation would be there for China to join, making the TPP not only the biggest, but virtually the only, game in town.

The TPP, in short, is the most important opportunity for trade diversification that Canada has ever had. When the next round of talks commence in Auckland Dec. 3, Canadian negotiators will finally be at the table, doing their best to advance the cause. We should wish them well.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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