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U.S. might always be first - but Canada adjusts to Rising Asia

Politicians often lament the grind of international travel, which, as Tony Blair observed in his memoirs, "plays havoc with your digestive system." In that sense, it might be best all around to scrap the annual summit with the leaders of the United States, Mexico and Canada.

The truth is there is not much left for the three of them to talk about in the same room at the same time. The Age of NAFTA is over. Both Canada and the United States now have far higher priorities than integrating more closely with Mexico. This greatly saddens the Mexicans, who looked to Canada as a partner in negotiating with Leviathan. But the times have moved on.

Canada will continue to support the annual Three Amigos meeting, however, because it represents an opportunity for the Prime Minister to talk to the President, even if there is a third guy in the room. These days, such conversations are strained.

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Officials insist that the personal relationship between Mr. Harper and Barack Obama remains strong. But the Prime Minister is clearly distancing himself from his former commitment to an ever-closer union with America.

This manifested itself most clearly Monday during a question-and-answer session featuring Mr. Harper at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center.

The Conservative government is chagrined at the United States for not supporting Canada's entry into the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations. The Americans have not made a final decision on the matter, and a deal could still be reached. But the word from this side of the border is that things are not going well.

Most of the nine Pacific nations already involved in the talks support Canada's application to join, Mr. Harper told the audience. But among the Americans, "I think there's some debate, particularly within the administration, about the merits of that."

The Americans insist Canada must first unilaterally agree to dismantle protections on dairy and poultry products, which ain't gonna happen.

The Prime Minister was also angered by Mr. Obama's decision not to approve – at least for now – the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada into the United States. Even if the President does eventually give the go-ahead, Mr. Harper declared, the Canadian government plans to look for other customers – hence the Northern Gateway proposal.

"We cannot be, as a country, in a situation where really our one and in many cases only energy partner could say no to our energy products," the Prime Minister stated flatly.

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"… For us, the United States cannot be our only export market," he emphasized. "That is not in our interest."

The most telling moment in the exchange did not refer directly to the United States at all. Instead, Mr. Harper was talking about Asia, which he has taken to visiting regularly.

"When you see these big emerging economies – I mean these people are smart, they are hungry, and they are hardworking, and unless we find ways of competing with them and growing, we are going to be under considerable pressure," he observed.

This is the new ever-closer union: growing the Canadian economy by enmeshing it within Rising Asia.

That doesn't in any way negate the value of the Canada-U.S. relationship, the closest in the world. The two countries continue to make incremental progress at easing border congestion. Thursday's budget signalled new investments in pilot projects in Prince Rupert and Montreal.

The United States will always be first among unequals. But in relative terms, it must inevitably wane and Asia must wax and Canada must adjust, despite what it might do to a prime minister's digestion.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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