BEIJING — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau concluded talks with the Chinese premier in Beijing, but they were not able to announce the start of formal free trade talks.
Trudeau said there wasn’t one particular issue that held up the talks, but he wants a progressive trade deal that includes addressing issues such as gender, the environment and labour.
“China is very aware that this is a precedent as they move forward with the first trade deal with a G7 country and there is a desire that we get it right,” Trudeau said.
“There is a coming together on the sense that this is going to be a big thing, not a small thing,” Trudeau added.
Premier Li Keqiang lauded the “golden age” of relations with Canada and said China was amenable to continuing exploratory trade talks.
But tempers flared on the Chinese side during Trudeau’s Monday visit to Beijing’s opulent Great Hall of the People.
Chinese security guards blocked photographers from The Canadian Press and the Prime Minister’s Office by throwing up their hands and moving their bodies between them and Trudeau as he walked a red carpet next to Li.
A Chinese foreign ministry official berated a diplomat from the Canadian embassy for not bringing the passports of the reporters travelling with Trudeau. The diplomat fired back at him in what was clearly an angry exchange.
Afterwards, the Chinese side cancelled a planned press conference, Trudeau’s office said.
The two countries have spent months in exploratory talks that have taxed China’s patience with Canada seeking to add provisions regarding the environment, human rights, labour and gender issues.
Despite the fact the much anticipated next step in Canada-China trade relations failed to materialize, Li had kind words for Trudeau and Canada. Li said it was rare for him to have yearly leader’s meetings.
“This is also a testament to the golden era of our bilateral relations. This also shows the importance you attach to the relationship between our two countries,” Li told Trudeau through a translator after their meeting.
Later, at a separate event, Li said Canada and China had entered a “golden age.”
Both leaders gave prepared remarks after their meeting, and later at a podium where their planned press conference never happened.
Trudeau said they had “frank and direct” conversations and that he looked forward to deepening economic relations with China.
“The opportunities for deepening our economic and people-to-people ties are tremendous,” Trudeau told Li, who was seated across a large boardroom table in a cavernous and ornate meeting room. Both leaders were each flanked by eight officials.
“We had (a) candid and in-depth exchange of views just now and reached important common understanding,” said Li, without elaborating.
The Trudeau government said it is still deciding whether to formally begin trade negotiations with China and has been pushing for a framework to broaden the talks to include the environment, governance, labour and gender issues.
It recently released the results of consultations with more than 600 businesses, academics and civil society groups.
Some of those surveyed expressed fears a freed trade pact with China could kill Canadian jobs and reduce their ability to compete against China’s lax labour standards, lower environmental requirements and state subsidies.
China says a free trade deal would be purely economic, and should not include talk of human rights.
Wenran Jiang, the Alberta based president of the Canada-China Energy and Environment Forum, said Monday’s inconclusive outcome should not have taken anyone by surprise.
“The Chinese have patience and are pragmatic,” said Jiang, who returned from China last week after his sixth visit to the country this year.
“They know if they push, it is not good. So the talks stay at the grand level – golden age,” he added.
“We found out that the Chinese followed Canada and its internal debate closely. They are saying that an FTA will be much more in Canada’s interests, but they are not going to rush us or push us.”
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press