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Thomas Mulcair asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, September 19, 2012.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The NDP is quietly working on a foreign policy that won't scare off Canadians.

It has to decide whether trade is good and China is bad. Or at least, for their electoral hopes, NDP members have to find an approach to those things, and the world, that doesn't make Canadians nervous about them running the country.

As they return to the House of Commons this week, the NDP has made that a key strategic goal.

They can expect to face a couple of key tests this fall, such as whether they will approve of a free-trade agreement with Europe and a big oil-patch takeover by the Chinese.

More broadly, Tom Mulcair is pressing ahead with efforts to mainstream NDP international policies that Jack Layton began.

Two weeks ago, at the party's pre-session caucus retreat in St. John's, NDP trade critic Don Davies outlined a new trade policy for fellow MPs. It's supposed to be this message: The NDP likes trade.

Just over 10 years ago, the NDP was expressing sympathy for the anti-globalization protests at World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle.

It is now going to urge Canada to try to reinvigorate the WTO's global trade talks, which the Harper government has neglected, Mr. Davies said.

"Nobody has picked up that mantle," he said. "The New Democrats are."

The NDP has opposed virtually every free-trade deal Canada has ever signed, but now calls for the acceleration of free-trade talks with Japan.

It also suggests prioritizing deals with India, Brazil and South Africa.

For the NDP, it's a culture change. The party's senior figures have decided it is a necessary strategic shift. The trade issue is not the big vote-getter in elections. But if the party is viewed as loonie left on international affairs, it will fail the basic character test voters use to judge fitness to govern.

When he became leader, Jack Layton had the party endorse Canada's membership in NATO, with the aim of making his party mainstream. He appointed moderates as foreign-affairs critics. The NDP supported intervention in Libya, at least until the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.

Mr. Mulcair's instinct is toward the centre, but his stamp is still unclear. He's viscerally more pro-Israel, but NDP policy remains a middle-ground compromise. He seems to have conservative instincts, overriding party critics and offering lukewarm support for the Harper government's decision to cut ties with Iran.

Real tests are looming, though. A real trade deal, with the European Union, is expected to be signed by the end of the year and will test the NDP's new pro-trade attitude. The party has almost always opposed free-trade deals, either because it threatened their union constituency or some sector they want to protect, or because they opposed partners like Colombia. But the EU is no tinpot dictatorship.

Mr. Davies says the NDP supports a deal in principle, but is waiting to see the details on issues such as expanding patent protections for pharmaceutical companies, which some fear could raise prices for prescription drugs. But even if they criticize the deal itself, they want people to believe they accept free trade with Europe. A tricky balance.

Then there's China. The bid by China's state-owned CNOOC for Alberta's Nexen Inc. will make the government, and the opposition, set some markers on Canada's relationship with Beijing. Many in the NDP want to oppose it. What's more, there are some who would like the party to assume the mantle of chief Ottawa critic of China's human-rights record – in effect, to take populist turf the Harper Tories used when in opposition. That, too, leaves them trying to strike a balance with a pro-trade message.

Many NDPers believe it's a balance they have to find now. "Foreign affairs and trade are part of that litmus test," said Brad Lavigne, the party's former national director. "We've never been called upon as much in the past to show our foreign-affairs chops as we are at this stage."