BANGKOK, Thailand—Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have entered exploratory talks to determine if a trade pact between the two countries is possible.
The discussions will examine the potential economic benefits and how such an agreement can improve on the existing $3.5 billion-a-year trade relationship.
If such a deal can be struck, Harper said it would benefit farmers and businesses across Canada, though it remains unclear when discussions could lead to actual free trade talks. Thailand’s interest in Canadian investment lies particularly in electronics and aerospace.
It has been 15 years since Jean Chretien led the last official visit to the nation of 66 million, which is among the world’s fastest growing economies.
Since coming to power in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has faced criticism that he’s neglected trade opportunities in Asia, particularly in China where his administration’s strident criticism on human rights led to a cooling of relations.
Harper restated his desire to diversify Canada’s trade away from the U.S. market and preferred not to dwell on the past.
“The commitments we are making on this trip lead us to being much closer partners, economic partners, security partners and of course social and cultural partners for decades to come.”
Canadian businessman John Darch, who owns Doi Chaang Coffee and has been doing business in the region for 26 years, says Canada’s private business interest in Thailand has been weak and was pleased to see the Harper government putting more emphasis on the country.
“We have probably not been as active as we could have been in this country,” he said. “I think the benefit of having a trade relationship with Thailand, which is in the heart of Asia, is substantial for Canada.”
If there is enough common ground Thailand would join a host of nations and regions, including the European Union and South Korea, that the Harper government is trying to court.
“We’ve made it our business to get back into the game of trade negotiations,” Harper said while noting his government has concluded deals with nine countries in the last six years.
Experts say a free trade deal with Thailand would be of greater benefit to Canada because Thai tariffs are higher than those imposed by Ottawa.