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Trudeau’s China setback was a self-inflicted wound

David Mulroney is president of the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto and a former ambassador to China.

Although official Ottawa almost certainly believes that it has nothing to learn from the current U.S. President, somebody, preferably in the Prime Minister's Office, should pick up a copy of Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal. We seem to have a hard time getting one done.

In the space of just over a month, we have generated confusion and consternation in two Asian countries due to our last-minute reservations about trade deals. In the APEC meetings in Vietnam in November, Canada was the spoiler at what was to have been the announcement of agreement in principle on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This deal involves the key players in the Pacific Rim, with the exception of China, which wasn't invited, and America, which dropped out. It was hoped that leaders could use the announcement to send a much-needed sign of support for continuing trade liberalization. What they got, after Canada's case of cold feet, was a somewhat grumpy undertaking to keep trying.

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This week in China, Canada's cold feet were again the problem. After weeks of speculation that the Prime Minister would join his counterpart, Premier Li Keqiang, in announcing the launch of formal talks, we were treated instead to an icy press conference that featured, well, a somewhat grumpy undertaking to keep trying.

If anything, what happened in China is even more puzzling than what happened in Vietnam. By the time a document is to be signed by China's Premier, it has already been the subject of much consultation within the Chinese system, culminating in approval of the text by the State Council, China's cabinet. Chinese officials assume that their foreign partners have been similarly diligent in briefing their leaders and securing high-level sign-off.

That doesn't seem to be happening on our side. What's going wrong?

For one thing, trade negotiating, once an elite art in Ottawa, is now a more mundane bureaucratic function. Back when the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement and NAFTA were negotiated, we fielded a team of deeply experienced negotiators, giants in a discipline in which Canada then wielded global influence. They worked closely, often directly, with ministers and with the prime minister. There were few – if any – surprises.

Today, the distance between the people who negotiate the deal and the person who signs it – the prime minister – is far greater, and many other people, among them congenitally cautious mandarins from Ottawa's "central agencies" and legions of hyperpartisan political staffers, stand between negotiators and the PM. That makes us more susceptible to second-guessing and last-minute surprises.

We're also losing that most valuable of negotiating skills: the ability to listen. Good negotiators listen carefully, taking note of what the other side wants and, equally as important, doesn't want. But these days, when the Prime Minister talks as he so often does about a "progressive trade policy agenda," it can sound like a lecture. Smaller states that need our largesse have to listen. China doesn't.

We do need to raise issues with China relating to human rights, labour and the environment. But before trying to shoe-horn them into our trade agreement, we should build them into our broader engagement strategy. Instead, the government's failure to address legitimate Canadian concerns about these issues has undermined the popular support needed to get a trade deal done. Knowing this, it's no wonder that the Prime Minister and his team are skittish.

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This is a self-inflicted wound. The government seemed naive about security risks when it failed to subject China's takeover of Vancouver high-tech firm Norsat to higher scrutiny. They seemed flatfooted when asked how they could consider closer economic engagement with a country that capriciously imprisons foreign business people, such as Canadian John Chang of British Columbia's Lulu Island Winery.

The Prime Minister's 11th-hour reversal has cost us in terms of credibility and goodwill in Beijing. But opting out of a process for which we are not ready is not the worst possible outcome. The government should now take the time to consult Canadians and craft a more comprehensive and sophisticated China policy. Being clear about objectives, enumerating risks as well as opportunities, and cultivating the lost art of listening can help us negotiate a deal that is well worth doing.

Justin Trudeau warns against protectionism (The Canadian Press)
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