OTTAWA - The freshly inked free trade deal with South Korea gives Canada the best possible partner in pursuing more such deals in Asia, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday.
Harper was understandably buoyant as he welcomed South Korean President Park Geun-hye to Parliament Hill, where the two leaders formally signed their bilateral free trade agreement, announced earlier this year, as well as a strategic partnership agreement.
Harper repeatedly referred to Park's state visit, which included dinner at the Governor General's residence on Sunday, as "historic."
The Harper government has said the free trade deal, finalized after a decade of on-again, off-again negotiation, would increase Canadian exports to South Korea by 32 per cent and grow the economy by $1.7 billion.
As its first major trade deal in the Asia Pacific, it is also seen by many as a major stepping stone for Canada's trade ambitions in the region.
Harper made it clear he shared that view.
"For getting a foothold in terms of free trade in the Asia Pacific, there's just no better and no more ideal partner that the Republic of Korea," he said, standing next to Park at a joint news conference on Parliament Hill.
In addition to the South Korean pact, Canada's recent investment protection agreement with China is also seen as an important step towards the government's goal of boosting business ties with Asia to help grow the economy.
Park and Harper both expressed confidence they could build on their agreement. The prime minister went one step further when he alluded to another similarity between the two countries: big neighbours such as China and the United States.
"We are countries that share values, and share interests," Harper said. "At the same time, countries that have to work with others to be effective because we're surrounded by giant neighbours who often take all of the attention, all the airspace."
Harper said co-operation with South Korea dates back more than 60 years to Canada's participation in the Korean War.
"It really began, in a sense, as a strategic partnership in a theatre of war," he said, adding that Canadian troops helped "keep the people of South Korea free from the tyranny of communism."
Park said that in energy and other sectors, Canadian and South Korean collaboration could help the countries lead the global market.
She said Canada has expertise in exploration and extraction of shale gas and oilsands crude, while South Korea can offer its specialization in smart grid and clean energy technology.
"Both sides have these strengths and advantages," she said. "This is an ideal situation for technological co-operation."
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