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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and former prime minister Paul Martin at a campaign event in Montreal on Aug. 28.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

A new government led by Justin Trudeau has thrust Canada into a "new era" in its relations with China and the rest of the world, Paul Martin says.

The former Liberal prime minister, who appeared on the campaign trail with Mr. Trudeau, was one of the architects of the G20 political forum, which China will host next year. He has travelled to China this week to argue for the importance of those meetings, saying he has "great hope" they will reinvigorate a body that has grown less relevant in recent years.

In particular, he said, the 2016 meeting could set in stone agreements worked out at climate talks that will take place in Paris later this year.

But Mr. Martin is also placing hope in Mr. Trudeau as a leader who can help develop consensus on some of those issues, and in the process return Canada to the role it has periodically played in the past as a global intermediary.

"Canada should take the lead again, and that lead should be on essentially building the multilateral institutions," Mr. Martin said Monday night in Beijing, where he addressed a crowd of academics and journalists at the Canadian embassy.

Canada has a chance to become "the essential country" by drawing others together and saying, "Hey guys, work together," Mr. Martin said.

"The country that can do this more than any other is Canada."

Asked how Mr. Trudeau might approach China differently from the Stephen Harper government, Mr. Martin said: "This is a new era … The opportunity to work with China in the G20 is one that Canada will take advantage of, and we should have been taking advantage of for some time."

He called for the rapid expansion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to include China and India, although he cautioned that the skepticism voiced by U.S. presidential contender Hillary Clinton means "the TPP may not happen."

It would make "enormous sense," he said, for Canada to pursue a free-trade agreement with China, particularly as part of a broader global trade deal.

Mr. Martin said he expected Canada to shed its standing as a less important player on the global stage.

"I can tell you under Justin Trudeau, it's not going to be [that way] for long," he said.

In China, Mr. Martin said, Canada should strike its own path, rather than follow the lead of a country like the United Kingdom, which has pursued a trade-heavy agenda with Beijing but has been criticized for muting human rights concerns in service of big-ticket investment deals.

"We do have values," Mr. Martin said. But he argued that, despite a recent campaign to jail lawyers and dissidents, "there's a far greater awareness" in China on human-rights issues "today than there was 10, 15 years ago."

And, he said, in Canada, "We have our own problems."