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Has Trudeau sunk Canada’s chances of joining East Asian Summit?

Justin Trudeau's Asian excursion may have been something of a disaster.

According to a report out of Australia, crossed signals over the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations left some leaders so furious with the Prime Minister that they have blackballed Canada from joining the East Asia Summit, the prestigious forum of Asian and Pacific countries that Canada has been trying to get into for years.

"Australia and other nations have all but shut the door on Canada joining" the EAS, the Australian Financial Review stated.

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If so, then Mr. Trudeau may have achieved a foreign-policy trifecta: endangering the future of the TPP, a major trade agreement that Canada fought hard to become a part of; wrecking any hopes of one day joining the East Asia Summit; and damaging Canada's campaign for a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2021.

The Canadian government insists the report is false. But what may matter most is not what happened, but how people feel. And the Australians, at least, don't seem to be happy.

Stephen Harper's Conservative government tried but failed to gain access to the 18-member EAS, a high-level talking shop that includes the members of ASEAN plus the United States, China, India, Russia, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Canada is anxious to join the annual forum, which currently has a moratorium on admitting new members.

So it was a big deal when Mr. Trudeau was asked to attend as a guest at the summit in the Philippines this year. According to the Financial Review, Mr. Trudeau personally asked Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to go to bat on Canada's behalf to have the moratorium lifted.

But then came Black Friday in Vietnam. The 11 ministers who sought to rescue the Trans-Pacific Partnership after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the pact were in high spirits on Thursday, having reached unanimous agreement at the APEC summit over the terms of the smaller, but still vital, TPP-11. International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne reportedly celebrated along with the others.

However, shortly after the meeting ended, word began to circulate that Canada was not, in fact, on board. On Friday, when the heads of government gathered to announce the agreement in principle, Mr. Trudeau failed to attend.

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Mystifyingly, all sides reached agreement on Saturday on wording essentially identical to what had been agreed to on Thursday. But by now, it appears, Canada was in deep trouble with other Asian and Pacific leaders.

"The fact is that delegations and leaders were gobsmacked at their behaviour," the Financial Review quoted an unidentified senior Australian official as saying. "He pulled out of the TPP at five minutes to midnight and then he rocked up at the EAS like he belonged there."

A Canadian government official, speaking on background because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, said the Australian report was false, that the summit meeting went well and that the government remains on track to realize its trade and diplomatic goals in Asia and the Pacific.

In the government's defence, Canada has at least one good reason to go slow on the TPP. This country is also involved in talks to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement, which Mr. Trump is also threatening to scrap.

Until Canada knows the terms of the new treaty – on matters such as the permitted foreign content in automobiles, for example – it arguably makes sense to hold off on signing the TPP.

Though it's worth pointing out that Mexico is also part of both the TPP and NAFTA talks, and it was willing to sign. In any event, if Canada had concerns, it should have raised them earlier and more clearly.

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Compound that with the Liberals' retreat on their promise to seriously engage in peacekeeping – the contribution that Mr. Trudeau revealed in Vancouver last week fell well short of the original commitment – and Canada's hopes for a seat at the United Nations Security Council just got considerably thinner.

Not that the mostly symbolic seat matters. What matters is keeping access to the American market open, while improving access to large and emerging markets in Asia and the Pacific.

Those are the declared goals of this government, though it appears Mr. Trudeau did that policy no favours while he was away.

Justin Trudeau says Canada declining to sign an agreement-in-principle on the Trans-Pacific Partnership should not have been a surprise. On Saturday, the prime minister said finalizing the trade deal will “take the time it takes.” The Canadian Press
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