Canada continues to pursue a multilateral free trade agreement with Southeast Asian nations, and those involved with negotiations say bilateral deals in the region could lead to larger pacts.
The pursuit of a free trade deal with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a block of 10 member states, began three years ago but has so far harvested no results.
Since, Canada has explored the possibility of entering into bilateral pacts with some of the ASEAN member states – including the launch of consultations for a deal with Indonesia.
Kendal Hembroff, director general of trade policy and negotiations for Foreign Affairs, said a broad agreement is better than a narrower one, but it “sometimes makes sense to do what you’re able to do at a given point in time.”
Those comments came during a March meeting of the International Trade committee.
In 2017, exploratory talks for a possible Canada-ASEAN trade deal started. Face-to-face meetings between Canada and ASEAN members continued over the next few years and in 2018, Ottawa did a public consultation on a potential pact.
Twenty of the 49 submissions in that consultation were from agricultural stakeholders.
According to the government, stakeholders overall expressed support for a free trade deal and highlighted “existing barriers for Canadian firms, including high tariffs, sanitary and phytosanitary issues and non-tariff barriers” could be addressed.
Hembroff told committee members Canada continues to pursue a Canada-ASEAN free trade agreement.
“The pandemic has certainly reinforced the importance of an agreement with all of ASEAN, especially as an opportunity to be able to tap into regional supply chains. That doesn’t preclude us from pursuing the possibility of bilateral agreements with ASEAN member states, and Canada recently conducted public consultations to seek the views of Canadians on a possible trade agreement with Indonesia,” she said.
“That type of agreement could potentially be pursued in parallel with a Canada-ASEAN FTA, and it might actually allow us to reach an agreement sooner that is potentially more ambitious than might be possible on a regional basis.”
Judging from the consultations that have already taken place, stakeholders would be grateful for additional access to Southeast Asian nations, even if access doesn’t extend to the entire region.
“The government heard that there are significant opportunities for Canadian agricultural products in the ASEAN market, and that a possible FTA would level the playing field in ASEAN with Canada’s regional competitors, especially Australia (which already enjoys preferential tariff rates through an FTA with ASEAN),” a summary of the consultations said. “Many agriculture stakeholders also suggested that Canada’s long-term goal should be to encourage ASEAN members to join the CPTPP.”