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Will Harper join Trans-Pacific Partnership now Obama’s on board?

Obama’s Trade Representative Ron Kirk informed U.S. Congress yesterday that the President “intends to enter into negotiations of a regional, Asia-Pacific trade agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement with the objective of shaping a high-standard, broad-based regional pact.” The first round of negotiations will happen in March. Considering Prime Minister Harper’s habit of changing travel plans to be with Obama (like he did in Copenhagen), and proroguing aside, we should expect Canada to be at the TPP table alongside founding members New Zealand, Chile, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam, as well as Australia, Peru, Vietnam, and potentially Japan, Korea and Mexico.

CanWest reported in October that Canada would like to negotiate a place in the TPP, though four years ago “it didn’t foresee that this eclectic club might some day be billed as a precursor to a strategically important, Asia-Pacific free-trade zone with clout.”

A possible barrier to entry, according to Yuen Pau Woo, president of the Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation think tank, was the U.S. beating Canada to the punch: “[O]ne of Canada’s bargaining chips is to offer third-country trading partners preferred access to the U.S. market through NAFTA. . . . If the U.S. joins the TPP, will the members of that deal still have much interest in welcoming Canada to the party?”

And Debra Steger, a trade specialist at the University of Ottawa who negotiated for Canada during the GATT’s Uruguay Round negotiations, told CanWest: “Part of the [interest in the TPP] is a warming up of Canada-Asia relations, but [more importantly, it fits] into [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper’s overall strategy. He started with a string of free-trade agreements in Latin America [and the Caribbean]. Then he launched Canada-EU. Now, he is looking to Asia as well.”

The next round of Canada-EU free trade talks are in Brussels, January 18 to 22. Though Harper won’t attend these, an army of federal and provincial negotiators will. The question is whether Canada will have the resources and energy to negotiate two massive regional FTAs — one with the European Community, one with Asia? It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Harper wouldn’t want to be at the table.