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Trudeau Pursues Trade with Human Rights Abusers in SE Asia

The Trudeau government has revived its push toward preferential trade with the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

This deal is already controversial: this club includes several countries that have been vilified for their human rights records.

Nevertheless, when the House of Commons returns this week, International Trade Minister Mary Ng will table the government's notice of intent to reach a trade agreement. It's part of the more "transparent" approach to international treaty negotiations Liberals agreed to in the last Parliament after Opposition MPs complained about rushing through bills implementing deals they couldn't fully review.

"Canada's free trade agreements are high-standard agreements," Ng said this week. "They have provisions around labour, they have provisions around the environment, they have provisions that provide greater access to small- and medium-sized enterprises."

"It's going beyond just, you know, Japan and South Korea," Trudeau said, citing four ASEAN members — Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines — "for people who are following along at home."

The other six ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

Trudeau says his ministers and diplomats are trying to formulate and articulate a strategy that counters China's influence in the Asia-Pacific. Closer trade ties with ASEAN, which encompasses 600 million people, could help.

Not all are optimistic. In Canada's new talks with ASEAN, the negotiating dynamic will be one country against ten. Meredith Lilly, who served as a trade adviser to former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, says the economic impact of an ASEAN deal would be "likely quite marginal" for Canada.

"It's hard to negotiate bilaterally with ten countries," she said. "You're the odd one out."

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