Canada is eager for a slice of the South-east Asian market as its economies are among the fastest-growing globally. In return, Canada is promising to bring its progressive and inclusive trade practices to the table, said its International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne yesterday.
Exploratory talks on an Asean-Canada free trade agreement had already begun in October last year. On Friday, Mr Champagne, 47, met Asean Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi to discuss the next steps.
Datuk Lim sees Canada "as a force of good in the region, engaging with the Asean countries", said Mr Champagne, who was in Singapore for a three-day visit to court investments and promote Canada's trade agenda.
Canada, a G-7 nation and one of the largest advanced economies in the world, can offer best practices, a knowledge of high environmental standards and strong labour regulations, across sectors from fintech to cleantech to greentech, said the minister. "Today you don't define countries by the size of their population but by the size of their market access. I never talk about Canada as a country of 36 million people. I talk about Canada as a country which has preferential market access to 1.2 billion consumers."
While its neighbour, the United States, has pivoted towards a more nationalist economic policy, Canada is looking to diversify its trade relations. It signed up to a series of trade pacts such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe in 2016, and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Singapore, earlier this month.
Canada and the US have been locked in renegotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which is heading into its eighth round of discussions next month.
While US President Donald Trump had originally excused his two Nafta partners Canada and Mexico from his steel and aluminium tariffs, he decided to put pressure on the two to seal up the trade talks by giving them temporary exemptions till May 1.
Mr Champagne said Canada has been working to make the exemptions permanent. Canada is the largest importer of US steel, which is tied closely to the car industry, one of the sticking points in the Nafta renegotiations.
"From the start, we thought the trade tariffs were unacceptable and unwarranted. We are partners, friends and allies," he said of the US.
He said he is cautiously optimistic a deal will be reached for the 24-year-old agreement, saying the trading relationship between the US and Canada is unique.
"We exchange more than C$2.4 billion (S$2.5 billion) of goods and services per day. About 400,000 people cross the border every day. Our economies are integrated. This is not a buyer-seller relationship. We make things together," he said.