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Not tweaking. Not a minimalist modernization. U.S. officials opened NAFTA talks with a declaration that it is out for major changes to the deal that shifts the balance of trade.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, in his opening statement before negotiations began, insisted this isn't going to be cosmetic. After years of politicians promising Americans they would renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement, President Donald Trump is finally going to do it, he said.

The big question that follows is more about politics than trade: How can Mr. Trump claim victory at the end?

Read more: U.S. demands steep concessions, not 'mere tweaking' in NAFTA talks

It's a tough question, because there's no way that a rewriting of NAFTA can do all the things the U.S. President has promised, such as eliminating trade deficits, bringing back lost manufacturing jobs and restoring lost national sovereignty.

But it's a key question for Canadian officials and business leaders. They want Mr. Trump to feel he can declare victory in a way that doesn't destroy NAFTA or disrupt North American trade.

One way that some suggest is to deflect Mr. Trump's target elsewhere, to non-NAFTA countries such as China – another key target of his trade rhetoric – and to use NAFTA as a tool aimed at those other countries.

The three NAFTA countries, for example, could work together to investigate unfair trade practices such as "dumping" of product by Chinese manufacturers – selling the product in North America at artificially low prices to win market share – and taking action against it.

"That would be of interest to all three countries," said Dennis Darby, president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters.

You could imagine how it might be of interest to Mr. Trump, if he could tell American workers that he had turned NAFTA – a term many Americans see as a synonym for unfair trade – into a tool to fight unfair competition from Chinese makers of steel or plastics or machinery. That may play well in Ohio.

But it's not easy. It would be hard to find a way to have all three countries retaliate together against dumping or subsidies using measures like countervailing duties. All three countries would have to show they have suffered the same injury because of the unfair trading practices, and that's hard to do when all three have different duties and regulations, Toronto trade lawyer Larry Herman said. It would be extraordinarily complex to arrange a joint NAFTA retaliation process unless all three countries formed a common customs union, Mr. Herman said – and that's not a real possibility.

However, Mr. Herman argued there are some less-muscular NAFTA tools that could be used. The original NAFTA created a little-used North American free-trade commission that could be mandated to monitor third-country imports, and unfair practices, and co-ordinate trade-remedy action – even if they can't apply a common retaliatory measure. That might have some political value for Mr. Trump.

Others suggest Mr. Trump could claim a win in the auto sector with a rewriting of the rules of origin – the complex rules that dictate what percentage of a car is considered North American.

Under NAFTA, a car must contain 62.5 per cent North American content in order to be exported duty free within North America. Because of the way the rules are written, it might really be 55 per cent in practice. The United States wants to make the rules more stringent.

Auto makers warn that reducing their ability to use parts from non-NAFTA countries such as India and China would make their vehicles less competitive.

Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association, said if rules are too stringent, it will raise costs and hurt jobs. But he said it may be possible to tighten and update the rules somewhat in a way that won't have a big effect on Canadian companies. It might have a little more impact on Mexican ones. If the tighter rules are phased in over a period of years, that would minimize the disruption, he said.

That might be a political winner for Mr. Trump. He could argue that he stopped Mexico from serving as a back door for Chinese steel or parts – an allegation he has levelled.

But is it enough? Is tinkering with the complex rules of origin, or mandating a commission to keep a watch on Asian imports, big enough to match Mr. Trump's NAFTA rhetoric? The hard question in these talks is what it will take for Mr. Trump to claim a win.