With Europe on hold, Canada turns attention to trade deals with Asia

OTTAWA – With European trade talks in hiatus if not limbo, Canada’s trade minister is turning his attention to market-liberalizing opportunities in Asia this month.

Trade Minister Ed Fast will be travelling to Brunei on Aug. 21 for a meeting with counterparts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), piggy-backing that event with a ministerial meeting of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on Aug. 22-30.

The announcement of a TPP ministerial meeting one month earlier than planned in Brunei ends rumours that Vancouver would host the next round, but also heightened speculation that the 12-country group was close to completing the technical work.

The U.S. has set an ambitious goal of end of the year for completion of the TPP talks, with a possible announcement of a deal in principle coming as early as the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in October.

Trade analyst Stuart Trew of the Council of Canadians says there is little chance the TPP could be wrapped up this year.

Trew said the goal was to have an agreement in principle for leaders to announce in October, but insiders say there are at least five major issues still to resolve, including the big ones on market access and tariff elimination.

If successful, the TPP would constitute Canada’s biggest trade deal since the North American agreement two decades back, encompassing a combined population of about 790 million people.

The TPP, however, also includes countries with which Canada already has signed trade agreements, particularly the U.S. and Mexico.

Officials still hold out hopes that Ottawa will eventually be able to hammer out a deal with the European Union this fall, after leaders and officials on the continent return from the traditional August break.

The Conservative government has made expanding exports through a series of new trade deals with Europe, the TPP countries, Japan and India a centrepiece of the strategy for future economic growth. But as critics have noted, Ottawa has not been able to pen a significant deal in 20 years.

Fast was expected to confirm his participation in Brunei at a late afternoon event in Vancouver, at the opening of a new Namco Bandai Studios Inc. online game development studio. The launch was first announced during a trade mission to Japan in April.

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