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Canada and Japan talk trade in lead up to G7 summit

by John Ibbitson (feat. Colin Robertson, Jean-Christophe Boucher and John Manley)

The Globe and Mail
May 22, 2016

Justin Trudeau arrives in Japan on Monday for a week of talks ending in a G7 summit that is darkened by stalled trade agreements, a rising tide of insurgent populism and the possibility that a President Donald J. Trump could attend next year.

The ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement may not make it through the U.S. Congress; both Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump, the likely Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, spout protectionist rhetoric; Britain votes June 23 in a referendum on whether to leave the European Union (called “Brexit”); and political turmoil in Europe threatens the future of the EU itself.

“The returns on trade have not been translated onto the dining room table,” said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Coupled with the uncertain recovery from the financial crisis of 2008-09, this has led, he believes, to a growing mood in both the United States and Europe that’s “anti-trade, anti-immigration, anti-big business, anti-establishment.”

Despite this, both Canada and Japan would like to reinvigorate their flagging trading relationship. Japan, once Canada’s second-largest trading partner, is now fifth. The two countries began free-trade negotiations in 2012, but put those talks on hold when they joined the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership talks that included the United States and a raft of Pacific nations.

Now all parties are holding their breath to see whether the U.S. Congress will ratify the TPP, as it’s known, since both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump say they oppose it. At the same time, populist politicians in both the United States (Mr. Trump on the right and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on the left) and in Europe threaten the existing order.

In Austria’s presidential election on Sunday, the candidate supported by the Greens and the candidate of the extreme right-wing Freedom Party each took half the vote, with no clear winner apparent. Nativist, nationalist, populist parties are on the rise from Poland to France.

“You’ve got an awful lot of unhappy, angry people out there,” noted John Manley, head of the Business Council of Canada. “All they know is that things haven’t gotten better for them and they’re not sure why, but trade is a pretty convenient target.”

Against this backdrop, Mr. Trudeau will be offering a message of hope at the G7: that sustained government spending, such as the Liberals’ 10-year, $120-billion infrastructure plan, can revive both growth and confidence. It’s a 180-degree turn from what Canada was saying under the austerity-minded leadership of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

“I don’t think anything has changed to make the Canadian voice any more or less powerful today,” said Rohinton Medhora, president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont. “What matters is what the Germans think in Europe, what the Americans think about these issues.”

But if Canada does not have much influence in the global debate over trade, it does have an enormous stake in the outcome. The Canadian economy depends on trade, so any reversal of the decades-old trend toward ever-freer trade puts Canadian jobs and Canadian prosperity at risk.

Mr. Manley said he believes there could also be opportunities. If the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement fails to be ratified, he is urging Mr. Trudeau to renew trade talks with Japan. “Canada has a rather unique opportunity to be a hub, rather than just one of the spokes,” he said, able to market itself as a conduit to both American and European markets.

All the more reason, Mr. Robertson urges, for Mr. Trudeau and International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland to hie themselves to Europe sooner rather than later to nail down ratification of the Canada-EU free-trade agreement.

G7 leaders are painfully aware that, should Donald Trump become U.S. president, the global order would be under enormous strain. Not only is Mr. Trump vehemently opposed to the TPP (and to the North American free-trade agreement), he is threatening to launch a trade war with China and has mooted withdrawing the American security umbrella protecting Japan and South Korea.

But Mr. Medhora remains hopeful. If the British vote to stay in Europe and the Americans elect Hillary Clinton, he observes, then the established order will remain largely intact. “A lot depends on what happens with Brexit and the U.S. elections.”

 


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