HANOI, Vietnam – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insists Canada will not be pressed into signing an updated Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement if it fails to align with the country’s best interests.
Trudeau made the remarks Wednesday in response to a question on whether he’s prepared to walk away from the 11-country trade pact if the revised version of the deal doesn’t include several new “progressive” chapters Canada has been pushing for.
“We believe that progressive, solid trade deals can help citizens in all sorts of different countries, at different levels of development and our ministers are very much focused on that,” Trudeau told reporters in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he started his multi-day trip through Southeast Asia.
“But let me, of course, remind everyone that Canada will not be rushed into a deal that is not in the best interests of Canada and of Canadians.”
Trudeau then added, in French: “I can assure people that we will not be rushed into signing a deal at all costs.”
International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne has said Canada wants the updated TPP to contain progressive chapters on the environment as well as workers’ and women’s rights.
But trade experts have said persuading Asia-Pacific economies to include the progressive chapters will likely be a tough sell because some of the countries at the table are far less developed than Canada and would have difficulty implementing them. Others said some counties might prefer to leave social issues separate from trade agreements.
The 11 remaining TPP economies, including Canada, are trying to revive the deal following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw earlier this year.
The TPP is expected to be a central theme at this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in the Vietnamese city of Danang.
Trudeau, who will attend the APEC meetings, is travelling in the Asia-Pacific to strengthen Canada’s ties to the region.
He arrived Wednesday in the busy, expanding city of Hanoi, the capital of a fast-growing country with a deep cultural connection for many Canadians.
Vietnam is also one of the TPP partners.
Trudeau met Wednesday with Vietnamese civil society leaders and President Tran Dai Quang. In the evening, he attended a state banquet hosted by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
On Thursday, he’s scheduled to travel to Ho Chi Minh City to visit the stock exchange, hold a roundtable with business leaders and appear at a university event.
He will head to Danang on Saturday for the two-day APEC leaders’ summit, before moving on to the Philippines to attend the annual meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
At both events, Canada is expected to push its trade agenda forward. It’s already engaged in exploratory trade talks with the ASEAN countries as well as negotiations to salvage the TPP.
When it comes to the members of the TPP, much of the focus remains on Japan, the world’s third-largest economy.
But Vietnam is also at the TPP table and it’s an ASEAN member. This means it could become a key partner for Canada, which is trying to increase its presence in the region.
Vietnam, projected to see economic growth this year of 6.3 per cent, features a sturdy consumer base, an emerging business class and an expanding footprint in supply chains.
Dominic Barton, the global managing partner of consulting giant McKinsey & Co., said in an interview that the rapid changes in Vietnam’s key cities remind him, in some respects, of what Shanghai went through less than two decades ago.
Barton, who also chairs the Trudeau government’s economic growth council, said Vietnam is an example of why Canada must be “motoring ahead” into Asia, particularly with so much uncertainty around the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“We’ve got to go hard on those Asian relationships,” said Barton, who headed McKinsey operations in Asia and South Korea for nearly a decade.
“I think we just have to have irons in many fires.”
Dan Ciuriak, a former deputy chief economist for what is now known as Global Affairs Canada, believes an updated TPP pact is closer to fruition than Canada’s potential deals with ASEAN or China.
“Vietnam and Japan would be the two biggies for Canada in terms of diversifying trade,” said Ciuriak, who is now the director of Ciuriak Consulting Inc.
“So, that’s probably the No. 1 priority for Canada and that’s where I think you’ll see the effort being put in.”
There are other parts of the original TPP where Canada would like to see modifications.
Without providing details, Champagne has said there are provisions he would like to see suspended in the updated deal.
A senior government official has said Canadian negotiators are seeking changes to the original TPP in several areas, such as its intellectual-property provisions, cultural exemptions and its impact on Canada’s supply management system for dairy, poultry and eggs.
Former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who is honorary chair of the ASEAN-Canada Business Council, said Vietnam not only shows real economic potential, it also has strong people-to-people links to Canada.
Both countries have French heritages and both are members of La Francophonie, he said in an interview.
But Charest said it’s the story of the Vietnamese refugees, or boat people, who came to Canada in the late 1970s that really forged the bond.
By 1980, around 60,000 people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos arrived in Canada after fleeing violence in their homelands. Today, about 240,000 people in Canada have Vietnamese roots.
“Certainly, the story of the boat people in Quebec, I can tell you without hesitation that it resonates positively in the minds of Quebecers as being a good example of integration into the broader Quebec society,” said Charest, who added the community is thriving in Quebec.
However, when looking at today’s Vietnam, Charest said the promising economy is accompanied by negatives, such as the fact “it is a communist regime and everything that comes with it.”
Canada’s pursuit of a more open trading relationship with Vietnam comes with pressure to have frank discussions about the serious concerns over the communist government’s human-rights record.
Human Rights Watch calls the Vietnam’s record “dire in all areas” because of the Communist Party’s firm grip on political power. The group also said the government has harassed, intimidated, physically harmed and jailed its opponents.
Earlier this week, Conservative Sen. Thanh Hai Ngo urged Trudeau to use his face time with Vietnamese leaders to raise Canada’s “serious concerns” about human-rights abuses in the country.
“Vietnam’s record of international human rights violations, its crackdown on rights advocates and its suppression of a growing democratic movement have significantly worsened leading up to APEC 2017,” Ngo said in a statement.
“Prime Minister Trudeau must demand greater respect for international human rights standards in tandem with the progressive trade agenda he wishes to promote with Vietnam and other APEC economies.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said Canada and Vietnam have a “constructive dialogue” on human rights. Canada has also advocated for the rights of women, freedom of expression, association and religion in Vietnam, it said.