On the eve of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's trip to Latin America, Mexico – keen on putting some new zip into its relations with Ottawa – sees Canada as an ideal fit for the new Pacific Alliance trading bloc that is rapidly emerging.
Mexico's vice-minister of foreign affairs, Sergio Alcocer, says Canada would see benefits in Latin America and Asia – if it's willing to do what's necessary to meet the group's ambitious goals. Mr. Alcocer's visit to Ottawa to discuss a relaunch of Mexico-Canada relations came just as Mr. Harper was preparing to leave Tuesday for a one-day stop in Peru before going on to Cali, Colombia, to meet leaders from Pacific Alliance countries as he eyes a move toward membership in the bloc.
Canada is already an observer in the Pacific Alliance, which currently includes Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru. Andrew MacDougall, Mr. Harper's spokesman, said Friday that the Pacific Alliance summit "will really be just a sounding out for us to see what the Alliance has to offer." But officials from Alliance countries are watching to see if he will upgrade Canada's status to "observer-candidate" – a signal Canada intends to join.
"I think Canada is a natural fit," Mr. Alcocer said Friday in an interview with The Globe and Mail. But he added: "There are things that have to be accomplished in order to move from observer to candidate and eventually to full member. And the rules are there, so, if the Canadian government is interested in pursuing this, well, there are these things that have to be met."
Canada already has free-trade agreements with all four Pacific Alliance countries. However, joining the group means signing onto goals that would require significant concessions: dropping all tariffs, including in politically sensitive sectors like dairy products, and getting rid of visitor-visa requirements for citizens of Pacific Alliance countries.
But Mr. Alcocer argues that the Alliance is moving faster to break down barriers between emerging Latin American economies than another prospective Pacific Rim bloc now being negotiated, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"The Pacific Alliance is going faster than the TPP. The agreements from the Pacific Alliance have been implemented already, some of them, while the TPP is still under discussion, it's going to take time to be implemented," he said.
And while the 16-country TPP talks are bigger, and include Asian nations like Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia, Mr. Alcocer argued the Pacific Alliance, focused on making trade deals across the Pacific, could open up Asian markets sooner.
For Canada, a major hurdle will be the Pacific Alliance demand that members agree to visa-free travel – a difficult issue for Ottawa, which imposes visa restrictions not only to screen for security risks, but to keep out people who might seek refugee status in Canada. Some sources, however, suggest that Mr. Harper offer a compromise to allow Canada to join, delaying the removal of visa restrictions for years but offering programs to alleviate the visa burden for Pacific Alliance countries.
Mr. Alcocer, in fact, said Mexico thinks Canada could find ways to ease the process through electronic visas or faster applications for people who have previously obtained visas to enter Canada or the United States.
The Harper government's 2009 move to impose visa requirements on Mexicans to prevent asylum-seekers from coming to Canada has been a major thorn in bilateral relations.
Ottawa signalled this year it is seeking to lift the requirement, and has added Mexico to a list of countries whose citizens are
fast-tracked through the Canadian refugee system.
Mr. Alcocer said it's not just the inconvenience that matters, but also the "political signal" that "the interest in the relations may be kind of diminished." He added, however, that Mexico feels it's time for the two countries to "relaunch their mutual interest."
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird visited in February to send a similar signal to the administration of new President Enrique Pena Nieto. His plans to open up Mexico's state energy sector are being closely watched by Canadian business.
Mr. Alcocer said Mexico and Canada are both looking at ways to increase the number of students who attend each other's universities, and at working together to convince Washington to improve border infrastructure to increase North America's competitiveness. "I think it's important for both of us to learn better what's going on in each country. We have a huge neighbour in the middle, and sometimes our attention gets lost with what's going on in the U.S. But we already have a very good relationship and there's room for improvement."