The Justin Trudeau government intends to push forward trade with China during the next two years, saying it is urgent that Canada do more with the world's second-largest economy.
Canada has yet to formally launch free-trade negotiations with China. A second round of exploratory talks will take place this week in Ottawa. Other Western countries have taken as long as a decade to conclude free-trade pacts with Beijing.
But Ottawa is now indicating it expects to move quickly.
The Liberal government wants to "demonstrate progress in our first mandate," Finance Minister Bill Morneau said in an interview. "That's certainly the kind of urgency we bring to these discussions."
Though Canada's fixed election dates can be overruled by the Prime Minister, the next election would normally be expected in 2019.
Mr. Morneau declined to define what "progress" might look like. Canada and China have agreed to double trade by 2025, but Mr. Morneau said Ottawa is not wedded to the idea of a single, sweeping trade deal. Some Canadian academics and business leaders have suggested Ottawa may be better to pursue a series of sector-by-sector agreements that could be more quickly set in place.
"That is exactly what the discussion at the exploratory level is considering. So we're looking at those alternatives in terms of approach," Mr. Morneau said.
His government wants ways "to deepen the relationship, focused on how we can build more jobs – in both places, of course – and that will mean that we are going to be looking at places in our economy where we can have the biggest impact."
He did not rule out a full-fledged comprehensive trade deal, but said he wants to be "practical" and move at a pace that allows Ottawa to show some results.
The Trudeau government's China ambitions come at a time its trade negotiators and diplomatic leadership have been heavily focused on the United States. Mr. Morneau himself was in Washington late last week to speak with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But, he said, Canada is also "moving ahead" with China.
Mr. Morneau and International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne will both fly to Beijing this week for the first round of a new Canada-China economic and financial strategic dialogue, meeting with Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang on Tuesday. The high-level meetings are expected to recur annually, and though they are not directly related to free-trade talks they are expected to play a role in setting broader economic priorities between the two countries.
Beijing has pushed for Ottawa to move quickly. China's ambassador in Ottawa, Lu Shaye, said last week, "we hope to speed up" exploratory talks, even as his government lays a list of demands at Canada's feet. China wants Ottawa to drop national-security tests for takeovers by its companies, and give its state firms unfettered access to the Canadian economy.
Last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang directly asked Mr. Trudeau, in a phone call, to "relax the restrictions on high-tech exports to China," Chinese state media reported.
That request involved a Chinese desire to buy Canadian companies, Mr. Morneau said.
"There have been a number of acquisition opportunities from China to Canada, and they are just stating that they are interested in that sector," he said.
Canada's response: "We always have to look out for our own best interests, especially in national security areas," Mr. Morneau said. But, he added, "We are an open trading nation and are looking for ways to create mutual advantage."
China has in recent months attempted to cast itself as a leading champion of globalization. But its demands for entrance into other countries come as it continues to maintain its own heavy barriers to foreign companies, who are either barred from investing in many sectors, or kept away by prejudicial treatment.
In January, the American Chamber of Commerce in China released an annual survey of its membership, which includes multinational giants who have done business in China for decades. More than 80 per cent of those surveyed said they feel less welcome in China than in the past, citing rising protectionism as one of the reasons.