Canada will enjoy preferred access to more than 60 per cent of the global economy once sweeping trade deals with Europe and the Pacific Rim are in place. But a key piece is missing: China.
Now may be the perfect time for Canada's new Liberal government to forge closer economic ties with China – the planet's No. 2 economy and this country's second largest trading partner after the United States.
There are two steps Ottawa can take to make that happen: Renew the push for a bilateral trade deal and join China's newly created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
China may be more motivated than ever. Growth has cooled, increasing pressure on the country to pursue economic reforms at home. And it's poised to be on the outside looking in at the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, undermining its place in global supply chains.
For Canada, the benefits of a bilateral trade agreement are just as obvious. This country has a large trade deficit with China – nearly $40-billion last year. We do less trade there than do many other developed countries. And Canada has a lot of what China needs, including natural resources and a host of high-value services, including financial and engineering.
"China is the only major one left to do," pointed out Dan Ciuriak, a fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and a former deputy chief economist at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now Global Affairs Canada). "That's the next place to go."
Canadian businesses would also get access to lower-cost inputs, including machinery and electronic components.
"The formation of the TPP makes it even more important and more useful for a country like Canada to have a deal with China," Shang-Jin Wei, chief economist at the Asian Development Bank, said in an interview. "We are living in a global value-chain world. Given regional trade agreements, it can be a stepping stone to broader global trading relationships."
But doing business in China is difficult and fraught with often opaque barriers. A bilateral deal with China would likely be far less ambitious than the TPP, but it could substantially improve access to the Chinese market for Canadian companies.
The Canadian Council of Chief Executives is preparing a study, slated to be released later this year, on the merits of doing a bilateral deal with China.
And a recent report by a blue-ribbon panel of experts at the Centre for International Policy Studies says Ottawa should make it a top priority. The report highlighted the economic importance of China's rapidly growing urban middle class. "A bilateral free-trade agreement is surely the next logical step," according to the report.
Canada has moved tentatively to forge closer economic ties. Ottawa signed and ratified a foreign investment and promotion agreement with China last year, giving Canadian companies greater confidence to invest there. And earlier this year, the first North American trading hub and clearing house for the Chinese currency, the yuan, opened in Toronto, making it cheaper for Canadians to do foreign-exchange transactions.
But other efforts to deepen integration have stalled. The previous Conservative government ignored Chinese offers to negotiate a broader trade agreement. Ottawa also bowed to U.S. pressure and balked at joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment BankAIIB, as most other major developed countries have. Canadian companies risk being left on the sidelines as the bank pumps $100-billion (U.S.) into an infrastructure building spree in the region.
Joining the bank could also set the stage for pursuing a trade deal. China already has a handful of trade deals with developed countries, most recently signing an agreement with Australia. South Korea, Singapore, Chile, New Zealand and Switzerland have similar deals. China is also negotiating a trilateral deal with Japan and South Korea.
Australia, for example, has secured a phase-out of tariffs on many of its key exports and expanded access to parts of China's growing service economy, including tourism, health care and agriculture.
There is continuing debate in China about whether the country should eventually join the U.S.-led TPP, according to Mr. Wei of the Asian Development Bank.
But that would not preclude Canada securing a bilateral deal first, he said.
"You get the best of two worlds," he said.