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Opinion The G20 summit will be a crucial test of Justin Trudeau’s foreign-policy mettle

Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

The tests for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won’t be in the plenary session, in which leaders must come to grips with 'intensifying' trade protectionism, but in what happens in the corridors and pull-aside meetings.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Is Canada back? Next week’s G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, will measure Justin Trudeau’s weight and influence on the international stage.

The tests for the Prime Minister won’t be in the plenary session, in which leaders must come to grips with “intensifying” trade protectionism, but in what happens in the corridors and pull-aside meetings.

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The first test will be whether Mr. Trudeau can convince Chinese President Xi Jinping to let up on Canada. We want our hostages freed, the canola embargo lifted and no more harassment of our meat and pork shipments. The Chinese want Meng Wanzhou returned and telecommunications giant Huawei eligible for our 5G procurement.

Improving relations will require creativity. Why not appoint former prime minister Jean Chrétien as a special envoy, as Brian Mulroney has proposed? The Chinese trust his straightforwardness. Get some “track-two” dialogue going through alternative, but reliable conduits such as the University of Alberta’s China Institute and the Asia Pacific Foundation. Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye was a problem, and when he departs later this month, both countries can name new ambassadors to restart the meetings between ministers and senior officials, a process that has been reportedly stalled.

Let’s also look for areas where we can work together. Climate is an obvious one. Another less evident one is through sports diplomacy, which appeared fairly effective during the South Korean Olympics in 2018. The Chinese want to do well at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and our “Own the Podium” is a model that has gotten proven results. The Chinese are also devoting more attention to those with disabilities, and they can learn a lot from Canada’s approach.

Mr. Xi was one of the first leaders that Mr. Trudeau met when he made his international debut as Prime Minister. That meeting, at the G20 summit in Turkey, set into motion what was to become a framework agreement for closer economic relations. But Chinese Premier Li Keqiang subsequently rejected Mr. Trudeau’s progressive trade agenda. Mr. Trudeau should speak to Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Mulroney about working successfully with the Chinese.

The second test for Mr. Trudeau will be how well our trade goals can be advanced.

He needs to secure a commitment from European leaders that CETA member-state ratification is a priority. With the new Trans-Pacific Partnership now in effect, he needs to sell the world on Canadian food and services. We also need buy-in for the Canadian-led initiative to reform the World Trade Organization. The United States has blocked the appointment of new judges to the WTO because they believe – with some justification – that the current system is slow, capricious and unfair. We need better rules on state subsidies, state-owned enterprises and intellectual property.

The G20, as the designated “premier economic forum for international economic co-operation,” is the place to sell these proposed reforms. G20 nations represent 80 per cent of global output. But there is now a real danger that the trade wars will lead to trade blocs and to a breakdown in global trade that has lifted billions from poverty and into the middle-class jobs sought by Mr. Trudeau and his fellow leaders.

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A third test for Mr. Trudeau will be whether he can persuade U.S. President Donald Trump to live up to his promises of closer North American co-operation, which were raised at the last G20 and reiterated by Vice-President Mike Pence during his recent Ottawa visit. Now that the U.S. threat of tariffs on Mexico has been suspended, the three countries need to move in tandem on legislative ratification of the new NAFTA.

Mr. Trudeau should corral Mr. Trump and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for an informal Three Amigos mini-summit to discuss the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, as well as Venezuela; Mr. Trudeau should speak on the useful work of the Lima Group. That multilateral coalition could also provide assistance in Central America, as flight from countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador is the primary cause of the latest U.S.-Mexico border crisis, and it deserves the kind of constructive hemispheric attention that the Lima Group could provide.

Finally, there will need to be close scrutiny of the collective security of the Indo-Pacific democracies. We’ve recently strengthened ties with Korea and Japan, but we need to do more. In the Indo-Pacific, this means contributing more naval power.

And then there are the Prime Minister’s signature themes: climate change, inclusive growth, gender equality and empowering women. His tireless championing of these issues is moving the yardsticks forward. But it’s a meaner and messier world. There are now as many G20 leaders who are autocrats – real or instinctive – as there are liberal democrats. Mr. Trudeau will be judged not on his demonstrated capacity to sprinkle stardust, but on the realpolitik of hostages, tariffs, displaced persons and disintegrating rules-based norms.

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