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Former prime minister Stephen Harper says there are “incentives” in the new trilateral trade deal for Canada and Mexico to work with the United States in opening up the Chinese market.

“There are incentives in the deal for the governments of Canada and Mexico to work with the government of the United States on trying to open up the Chinese market. And I think this is actually an opportunity,” Mr. Harper said at a luncheon in Toronto on Thursday

“All three countries have large and growing imbalances with the Chinese market that are driven by the fact that we have grossly unequal market access … Frankly, I don’t think acting alone we are capable of fixing that particular challenge.”

Mr. Harper was referring to provisions that relate to Canada’s future relationship with China. The proposed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) obliges the three countries to give one another three months' notice before starting free-trade talks with a “non-market country.” The United States has refused to recognize China as a market economy even 17 years after the Asian country joined the World Trade Organization, a position Beijing is now challenging before the global trade body.

China has denounced the provision, calling it a “hegemonic action” that “blatantly interferes” with another country’s sovereignty.

The Trudeau government has argued that nothing in the agreement prevents Canada from deepening its trade ties with other countries, noting that any party may withdraw from the agreement for any reason, with six months' notice.

Mr. Harper said the West has a “serious problem” with Chinese market access.

"The Chinese have wide-ranging access to our markets, but we can only sell to China when they say so, in what quantity they say and for how long they say,” he said. “Otherwise it’s not an open market, and that is creating a great structural imbalance and it is undeniable.”

The former prime minister was speaking at the Canadian Club of Toronto, where he was promoting his new book, Right Here Right Now, an examination of global populism and political disruption. Media members were not allowed to cover the event in person, but were able to watch it on a livestream.

Mr. Harper, who now chairs the right-of-centre International Democrat Union and runs his consulting firm Harper & Associates, said he travels the world advising businesses on geopolitical trends. “Starting in 2016, the year after I left office, everything went to hell in a hand basket. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence," he said.

In a question-and-answer session moderated by former Conservative Party president John Walsh, Mr. Harper said he “had a few thoughts” about Canada’s new trade agreement. “I think everybody knows I did not think much of the way it was handled on our side, albeit a difficult situation,” Mr. Harper said.

He said the case is “unequivocal” that the U.S. got a good deal, and is making headway on its trade agenda. “On this one they got some pretty clear wins,” he said. For Canada, “obviously there are some losses, but the deal gives us comprehensive and largely beneficial access to the American market, so it’s essential.”