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Asian markets important for Canada after recent U.S. decisions: Harper

A series of U.S. decisions which run counter to Canadian interests highlight the need for Canada to secure access to Asian markets for its energy products, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Sunday.
Stephen Harper, Barack Obama
Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the 2011 APEC Summit in Kapolei

HONOLULU — A series of U.S. decisions which run counter to Canadian interests highlight the need for Canada to secure access to Asian markets for its energy products, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Sunday.

While Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama took a chummy walk down a palm treed path outside the APEC summit in Hawaii Sunday, it was clear that the delay of a major Canadian pipeline project continues to drive a wedge in relations between the two countries.

According to official accounts of the leaders’ meeting, Harper expressed his disappointment with the U.S. State Department’s decision to reroute the $7-billion project and order further environmental assessment.

The 2,700-kilometre pipeline would bring crude from the new oilsands expansions in northern Alberta to be turned into gasoline and other fuels in Texas, the hub of the American refining industry.

But Obama said he supported the decision to delay TransCanada’s Keystone XL project “to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood.”

Earlier Sunday, Harper had said he was confident the project would eventually be approved.

He said the decision to delay the pipeline, as well as other recent U.S. decisions that have raised questions in Canada about the strength of the relationship with the U.S., were merely products of the “political season” and didn’t represent a fundamental shift in American policy.

But he also said it was time for Canada to start looking East.

“That will be an important priority of this government going forward,” he said, noting he raised the issue of energy exports with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Saturday.

Canada further signalled the importance it places on ensuring access to Asian markets by reversing an earlier decision that membership in the Trans Pacific Partnership was not necessarily in Canadian interests.

A key sticking point had been the suggestion that Canada needs to considering shelving supply management policies for the dairy, egg and poultry industries.

The Conservatives have been steadfast in their support of the subsidies and quota system for those sectors, but Harper announced Sunday that Canada wants to be at the TPP table.

The switch gives Obama a boost in his drive to lead expansion of the new trading bloc and contributed to the president being able to walk away form the APEC summit claiming victory for the American economy.

Harper said a review of the criteria for membership in the TPP indicated Canada could easily meet the conditions.

“For the question of specific sectors, whenever we enter negotiations as we’ve done in the past with other countries, as we’re doing right now with Europe, we always say that all matters are on the table,” Harper said.

“But of course Canada will seek to defend and promote our specific interests in every single sector of the economy.”

Harper and Obama also discussed the ongoing negotiations for a border security deal that was announced with much fanfare nine months ago but appears to have lost much of its lustre.

The two said negotiations continue and Harper signalled an announcement was coming in the very near future.

He’s been invited by Obama to Washington in December.

The pipeline was only the latest decision by U.S. legislators and regulators unfavourable to Canada.

Obama’s administration recently revived its “Buy American” provisions, potentially costing Canadian businesses billions of dollars in U.S. sales, and in the budget proposal the president tabled last week he proposed a $5.50 “passenger inspection fee” for Canadian air travellers.

Harper was nonetheless cautious in his response to the series of American moves.

“Remember, not all these things are final decisions,” Harper said. “I think Canadians would be wrong to interpret any of these decisions as against Canada.

“This is simply the political season in the United States and decisions are being made for domestic political reasons that often have little or nothing to do with what other countries may think.”

The NDP said Harper’s remarks weren’t helpful in making the Canada-U.S. relationship any stronger.

Suggesting that what’s at play in the U.S. is merely political posturing is a failure to understand the dynamics at play, especially environmental opposition to the pipeline, said the NDP’s Peter Julian.

“What Canada needs is an effective strategy and we haven’t had that with the United States since this government came to power,” Julian said in an interview.