Ottawa is not ready to launch free-trade talks with China, but will focus on concluding deals with other Asian countries, Foreign Minister John Baird says.
Mr. Baird spoke on Monday after several business executives urged the Harper government to step up its pace of engagement with China and other emerging Asian powerhouses lest Canada be left behind in the race for access to new markets and investment from the rapidly developing region.
In an interview last week, China's ambassador to Canada, Zhang Junsai, said the two countries should move quickly towards a free-trade agreement, a view that was endorsed on Monday by André Desmarais, president of Power Corp. of Canada, which has long-standing business ties in China.
But Mr. Baird signalled a more cautious approach to China, noting the government is pursuing several trade deals with countries such as Japan, South Korea, India and Thailand as well as the 10-nation Trans Pacific Partnership.
"While some have suggested that Canada should consider launching all sorts of new trade talks, our government is committed to concluding the agreements already under negotiation," the minister told a forum on Canada-Asia relations convened by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.
Still, Mr. Baird said the Harper government has made it a priority to expand trade and investment ties with Asia, and noted Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently signed a foreign-investment protection agreement with Chinese President Hu Jintao that should set the stage for increased capital flows between the two countries.
The minister made no mention of the biggest deal on the government's plate: the proposed $15.1-billion acquisition by state-owned CNOOC Ltd. of Calgary-based oil company Nexen Inc., which Investment Canada is reviewing.
But there was little doubt the business audience at the chief executives' conference viewed approval of the deal as an important step in Canadian and Chinese relations.
Mr. Desmarais said Canada needs to pursue a long-term approach that includes building trust among business people and governments through trade agreements, joint ventures and increased travel between the two countries.
"We've been pushing for some time for some sort of trade agreement," the Power Corp. executive said. "We'd get better access to that market. ... But if we're too late in going, you may find out you're not going to get the deal you deserve."
Mr. Baird focused his speech on the broader Asian region, noting the Harper government's efforts to forge relations with countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Korea through both bilateral and multilateral trade and security agreements.
Ottawa is engaged in a "delicate balancing act" as it weighs the economic imperative of increasing trade and investment with the fast-growing region against the need to promote Canadian values such as democracy and human rights, he said.
Some members of the Conservative caucus worry that the government's embrace of the communist government in Beijing may be tilting too far towards economic concerns. And recent polls have suggested Canadians are wary of takeovers by Chinese state-owned companies in this country's resource sector, while human rights groups have urged Ottawa to review the CNOOC-Nexen deal in the light of China's poor human-rights record.
Mr. Baird sought to reassure Canadians that the government won't sacrifice values for trade and investment.
"The bottom line is that economic opportunity, whether ours or that of those beyond our borders, rests on free, transparent and open societies," he said.