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Canada must expand trade with Asia, Baird says

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird

OLIVIER JEAN/The Globe and Mail

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will make his seventh visit to Asia next week, saying accessing markets there is now a "top foreign policy priority" underscored by the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline.

Canada has no room for complacency in its pursuit of increased Asian trade, Mr. Baird said in a speech Friday at an Edmonton luncheon sponsored by TransCanada Corp., the company behind the Keystone project.

Mr. Baird's latest trip, announced Friday, will take him to Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong early next week.

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"We know that Canada must play a very active role in this part of the world. It's simply not a choice; it's not an option. It has to be a national imperative," Mr. Baird said at a luncheon organized by the Alberta Enterprise Group. Mr. Baird said Keystone is an example of why Canada needs to expand its markets and not rely only on the United States to buy its oil.

"We hope Keystone will move forward in very short order," Mr. Baird said at the TransCanada-sponsored speech Friday. "This is an issue which is paramount to the future of economic prosperity in Canada."

Getting a Keystone approval has been the top mission of Canada's envoys in Washington for two years, Mr. Baird said.

His comments were made as the discount applied to Western Canadian oil has widened, due in part to a glut of supply in the U.S. The Alberta government has said new pipelines would alleviate the pressure and drive up the price paid for Alberta oil. But the proposed Keystone project has become a target for environmentalists, particularly those opposed to oil-sands development.

"It is one big example about why it is a national imperative that we diversify our markets for energy and natural resource projects," Mr. Baird said, drawing applause from the luncheon crowd.

The speech was attended by caucus colleagues Laurie Hawn, James Rajotte and Mike Lake, all MPs from Alberta. Several provincial officials, including International and Intergovernmental Relations Minister Cal Dallas, also attended. On Tuesday, Mr. Baird spoke by phone with Alberta Premier Alison Redford, discussing TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline and the two governments' budgets – Ms. Redford's was tabled Thursday, with the federal budget due in coming weeks. The pair discussed "the fact we share similar challenges because of the same problem. And we were comparing notes with respect to Keystone and Washington," Ms. Redford said earlier this week. The province is currently developing a new international strategy, due out next month. Mr. Baird said he visited Washington this week, joining Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Ms. Redford on a list of Canadian leaders travelling south lately to push for Keystone's approval.

Mr. Baird's Asia trip will include meetings in Singapore on Monday, Vietnam Tuesday and Hong Kong on Wednesday. He departs for Canada late Wednesday.

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Mr. Baird recently returned from a tour of Latin America, one in which his visit to Venezuela was cancelled. The subsequent death of President Hugo Chavez further strained relations after the country objected to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's message of condolence as "insensitive and impertinent."

Speaking to reporters Friday, Mr. Baird shrugged off the setback.

"Obviously it's an emotional situation in Caracas [the capital]. The Prime Minister's statement speaks for itself. Obviously, when the dust settles, we'll be interested in engaging with the various political actors there," Mr. Baird said.

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