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International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne arrives to discuss foreign relations and international trade on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 7.Justin Tang

Canada's International Trade Minister is drawing a line in the sand on the scope of free-trade talks with China, saying the Liberal government will not relent on its intention to address labour rights in a future deal as part of a "progressive" negotiating agenda.

Efforts to launch official free-trade talks went off the rails late last year during a visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Beijing and both countries have been discussing how they could get back on track.

International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne told the Commons trade committee on Thursday the government is talking to China, but is not prepared to sacrifice principles.

"I think Canadians expect us to open markets, but not at the expense of the environment, not at the expense of labour rights and not at the expense of making sure women and men will have an equal chance in trade," Mr. Champagne told MPs on the Standing Committee in International Trade.

"We're going to engage with China with our eyes wide open – with our timetable and according to our principles."

Mr. Trudeau came home empty-handed from Beijing last December after Chinese balked at Canada's demand to include labour standards in negotiations. Canada has been pushing to address labour standards, environmental standards and gender rights in any agreement.

China's consul-general in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, later in December told a news conference her country was not keen on including items in a trade deal that it considers not relevant to a commercial pact.

"We object to the addition of other political conditions into the discussions of a free-trade agreement," Ms. Tong said on Dec. 19, according to a report in the publication Business in Vancouver.

"China has situations unique to China; it has its own history and culture. So our development as a country bears the marks of our own historical contexts. Therefore, in any negotiations with another country, we have our principles that present a baseline that we cannot cross. We are not going to change our principles or soften our position for the completion of a free-trade deal, and we reject the use of political conditions as bargaining chips in a negotiation for an economic agreement."

Two senior representatives from China's Communist Party recently conducted high-level talks with senior Trudeau cabinet ministers and federal officials to broaden relations and resume efforts to proceed with formal free-trade negotiations between Beijing and Ottawa.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau spent time at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps last month with Liu He, a trusted confidant and top economic adviser to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

At the same time, the Communist Party's top diplomat – an important role in the one-party state – paid a visit to Canada.

Song Tao, head of the Communist Party's international liaison department, in January met Mr. Champagne and Daniel Jean, the national security adviser to Justin Trudeau, as well as other senior advisers in the Prime Minister's Office. As head of the Communist Party's foreign affairs office, Mr. Tao is in charge of dealing with other communist parties in countries from North Korea to Vietnam to Laos and Cuba. But his portfolio has expanded more recently.

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