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Canada’s former ambassador to China says he believes the two countries must begin formal trade negotiations this year so that the question of whether to deepen economic ties to Beijing does not get tangled up in next year’s expected federal election.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s former ambassador to China says he believes the two countries must begin formal trade negotiations this year so that the question of whether to deepen economic ties to Beijing does not get tangled up in next year’s expected federal election.

The Trudeau government has been trying to launch formal free-trade negotiations with China but the Opposition Conservatives have come out against the effort. Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer has said now is not the time to sign a trade deal with China, citing Beijing’s heavy intervention in the economy as one reason.

A federal Canadian election is expected by the fall of 2019 – four years after the Liberals won power – and the question of whether Canada should draw closer to China under the authoritarian administration of President Xi Jinping could very well crop up on the political campaign trail.

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The government needs to act quickly to start talks before the next national ballot, said Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada’s envoy in China between 2012 and late 2016.

Mr. Saint-Jacques, speaking to The Globe and Mail on Monday, said the Conservatives appear to have forgotten that the former Harper government came close to launching trade talks with China in 2012 under the administration of former Chinese president Hu Jintao.

The former Canadian diplomat said the Conservative government was making preparations for trade talks with Beijing in 2012, following the publication of a study examining the benefits of deepening economic relations.

In late 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came home empty-handed from Beijing. Plans to launch formal free-trade talks during the trip went off the rails after the Chinese balked at Canada’s demand to include labour standards as one of the key subjects up for negotiation, according to a senior federal official.

The official said the Chinese did not want to publicly mention that labour standards would be included in the talks, but Mr. Trudeau would not back down. The dispute ended without any agreement to initiate formal free-trade negotiations although informal talks are still ongoing.

Mr. Saint-Jacques said what happened was China did not want the public communiqué announcing the free trade talks to mention that Beijing was discussing labour standards with Canada.

He said Beijing had sent signals ahead of Mr. Trudeau’s visit saying they could not accept a reference to labour standards in any public communiqué announcing the free trade talks.

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Mr. Saint-Jacques said trade unions in China are “completely token organizations” and Beijing is adamant about not emboldening would-be activists in China who might agitate for change.

“They are afraid of anyone who tries to organize. Protests on environment issues or food quality or creating a union, all of this is dangerous for the stability of the country,” he said.

Beijing under Mr. Xi is much bolder in its defence of China’s social and political arrangements, and Mr. Trudeau’s visit to Beijing last December came at a time when Chinese leadership is increasingly confident that it doesn’t need to compromise with Western values, Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

“We are dealing now with a new China which is a lot more assertive and aggressive and this case, clearly back in December they wanted us to know we are the junior partner,” he said.

Mr. Saint-Jacques said Beijing and Ottawa must find new language acceptable to both sides to push forward on formal free-trade talks and get past the disagreement over the inclusion of labour standards in negotiations.

He said labour issues will have to be discussed in any free-trade negotiations because he expects China will push for more flexibility to bring Chinese workers to Canada as they did during negotiations with Australia.

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