08/29/2016 03:27 EDT | Updated 08/29/2016 03:59 EDT

Gerry Ritz: Tories Discussed Free Trade With China, But Focused On TPP, CETA Instead

Gerry Ritz made about 15 trips to the country.

OTTAWA — Former prime minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government discussed free trade with China, but chose instead to focus its energy on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Canada's pact with Europe, says a former cabinet member.

But that doesn't mean the Tories made no headway in building Sino-Canadian relations during their decade in power, said Gerry Ritz, who made about 15 trips to China during his tenure as Harper's agriculture minister.

Former PM Stephen Harper leaves a press conference with then-trade minister Stockwell Day and agriculture minister Gerry Ritz in Beijing, China on Dec. 3, 2009. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

"I tend to chuckle right out loud when I hear Trudeau talk about the chill that was the Canada-China relationship," Ritz said in a recent interview.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives Tuesday in Beijing for an official visit that will focus on strengthening Canada's business ties with the world's second-largest economy. There are high expectations on both sides.

Trudeau has called the weeklong trip an opportunity to do a bit of a "reset" of a relationship that he said was hot and cold under the previous government; many Canadian experts characterized it as inconsistent under Harper. And last week, China's ambassador to Canada said Ottawa's "pace and priorities" were "quite different" under the Tories than they were under past Liberal administrations.

Tories pushed relationship forward: Ritz

Not so, countered Ritz, who insisted Canada moved the economic relationship forward in many areas.

They finalized the deal known as the Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement; secured a renminbi trading hub; expanded trade significantly in areas like agriculture; boosted tourism; and expanded the number of daily flights between the two countries.

When it came to free trade with China, Ritz said a big part of the reason such talks didn't progress was largely due to a lack available trade officials. Many of them were busy negotiating other deals, he said.

"There's only so many people and so many dollars that can be allocated to push forward on trade agreements," said Ritz, who is now the Tories' parliamentary critic for international trade.

'Other priorities took precedence'

"China was certainly on the list of where we needed to get to over time, but there were other priorities that took precedence."

Since its election win last year, the Trudeau government has advocated more trade with China, but has been reluctant to call for free trade negotiations amid Canadian concerns over the superpower's record on human rights.

China has publicly urged Canada to begin free trade discussions, arguing a deal would bring considerable benefits for Canadians.

Many business leaders want Ottawa to proceed with free trade talks as a way to help boost Canada's feeble growth.

New Democrats concerned about human rights

One analysis estimated free trade with China would expand Canada's exports by about $7.7 billion and its gross domestic product by about $7.8 billion by 2030. The predictions come from a January report prepared for the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada by trade experts Laura Dawson and Dan Ciuriak.

But others, including opposition MPs, suggest a more gradual approach on what would likely be a complex agreement, particluarly with concerns over human rights in China and the country's recent geopolitcal actions like the dispute over islands in the South China Sea. 

"There's still quite a few hurdles that have to be overcome," said Helene Laverdiere, the NDP's parliamentary critic for foreign affairs and a former diplomat.

"Labour laws, human rights — they're all part of that. You cannot look at a trade deal just from the point of view of trade."

TPP, CETA must come first: Tories

Ritz said he believes the Liberals should pursue free trade with China — but only after they cross a few other items off their list. 

Before prioritizing China, he suggested Trudeau focus on finalizing Canada's free-trade deal with Europe and the TPP — a huge, 12-country Pacific Rim treaty that includes the large United States and Japanese economies. Both deals were negotiated while the Tories held power.

The future of the controversial TPP remains uncertain because both American presidential candidates — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — oppose the deal. Canada should press ahead with it with its other partners, even if the U.S. backs away, Ritz said.

He also suggested the Liberals deepen trade with Asia's ASEAN economies, which include the Philippines and Indonesia, before focusing on China.

'Tremendous opportunity' with China's middle class

And he recommended a careful approach with China to avoid the risk of agreeing to something during talks that Canada could regret in the future.

"You have to do it on your terms," he said, adding there is "tremendous opportunity" in China's growing middle class.

"If everyone there had a bacon cheeseburger and a beer once a month, we couldn't supply it. It's that size."

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