Trudeau pursues 'free trade' with China, with implications for pipelines, Indigenous rights & water protection

The CBC reports, "Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Thursday exploratory talks on free trade will begin between Canada and China — with the goal of doubling trade between the two countries by 2025."

The Canadian Press adds, "China has been eager to start free trade talks, but Canada has shown less enthusiasm — until Thursday. During the prime minister’s own visit to China last month, Li said the two countries had embarked on a feasibility study of a free trade deal. But Canada’s ambassador to China later called that premature, citing issues including labour, the environment and Chinese state-owned enterprises. Those concerns now seem consigned to history."

While much of the media coverage has focused on China's human rights record and its extensive use of the death penalty (while the precise number is a state secret, it is estimated that at least 2,400 people were executed in 2014, though the number is believed to be much higher), it has previously been reported that a pre-condition for free trade talks is the approval of a tar sands export pipeline.

In January, The Globe and Mail reported, "China wants to forge a historic free-trade deal with Canada, but a senior Chinese official said this will require Canadian concessions on investment restrictions [notably in the oil and gas sector] and a commitment to build an energy pipeline to the coast." And earlier this month, CTV reported, "[Former prime minister Brian] Mulroney says that growing trade between Canada and China depends on Trudeau approving the Energy East Pipeline."

The Trudeau government will make its decision on the 1.1 million barrel per day Energy East pipeline in June 2018, and will announce its decision on the 890,000 barrel per day Trans Mountain pipeline on December 19. There is speculation that Trudeau is now ready approve the Trans Mountain pipeline (which may be what facilitated yesterday's announcement about free trade talks).

Beyond the news of the talks, the Prime Minister's Office also announced, "A commitment from Sinoenergy Corporation Ltd. to support operations of the Long Run Exploration Ltd. facility in Alberta, an intermediate oil and natural gas company focused on development and exploration in Western Canada, by the injection of an additional $500 million over the next two years."

The Trudeau government has already stated it won't improve on the Harper government's weak emission reduction targets, while China has only pledged to stop its emissions from growing by 2030.

A free trade agreement with China would likely include an 'investment protection' provision that would make it that much harder to subsequently constrain the growth of the tar sands or to reject new pipelines. For example, Calgary-based TransCanada has launched a $15 billion North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Chapter 11 challenge over the U.S. government's rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) was ratified in September 2014 by the Harper Conservatives with the support of the Trudeau Liberals. That agreement was opposed by the Hupacasath First Nation that sees the deal as a violation of Indigenous rights.

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow has stated, "This investment deal will give Canadian corporations operating in China a tool to fight any improvements in human rights, labour, or environmental standards in that country. Conversely, Chinese investors in the Alberta tar sands will use it to fight higher environmental standards in the Canadian energy sector. Instead of promoting corporate friendly trade and investment deals that profit only the privileged, Canadians should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Chinese people seeking better working conditions, improved human rights, and a clean environment in both our countries."

The rapid industrialization of China has consumed massive amounts of water and has contributed to a terrible water crisis there. It has been estimated that 90 percent of groundwater in their cities and 75 percent of their rivers and lakes are polluted and as such some 700 million people drink contaminated water every day. It has also been forecast that by 2020 there could be 30 million environmental refugees in China due to water stress. In 2011, Canada imported about $48 billion in merchandise from China, including mechanical appliances, electrical equipment, washers/dryers, DVD players, and rare earth metals used in plasma screens and portable computers.

A recent Ekos Research Associates poll found that 46 per cent of Canadians would oppose a 'free trade' agreement with China, while 46 per cent would support one.

Further reading
Canada-China "free trade" harms the public interest of all (February 26, 2016)