[OTTAWA] Canada and China have agreed to begin talks for a possible free-trade accord with an aim of doubling bilateral commerce by 2025, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Thursday.
"We've agreed to launch exploratory talks towards a potential free-trade agreement between Canada and China," Mr Trudeau said at a joint news conference with visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
"And further to this, we've set an ambitious new goal to double bilateral trade between Canada and China by 2025." China is Canada's second-largest trading partner after the United States, with trade last year exceeding C$85 billion (S$87.7 billion).
"We know that there is a huge amount of untapped potential in our commercial relationship," Mr Trudeau noted.
Mr Li's visit to Ottawa comes one month after Mr Trudeau made a trip to Beijing looking to "renew and deepen" Sino-Canadian relations.
The Chinese leader praised the reboot after a decade of cooling under the previous Canadian administration, saying through an interpreter: "We believe that China and Canada have extensive common interests and good relations."
"These back-to-back visits in less than a month shows that China-Canada relations are moving to a new stage," Mr Li told reporters.
And these are just the first visits. Mr Trudeau and Mr Li agreed to meet annually to discuss security and the rule of law, and economic and financial matters. Their respective foreign ministers will also hold annual talks.
"Stepping up communications will increase mutual understanding and allow for proper handling of the issues and differences that we have," Mr Li said.
On Thursday, the two leaders also announced a lifting of Chinese bans on imports of Canadian canola (by 2020) and beef, and a tourism agreement that seeks to double two-way visits by 2025.
Last month, Canada said it would apply to join the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has been criticised by its neighbour and closest ally, the United States, but was welcomed by Mr Li.
A request by Beijing for an extradition treaty with Canada, which Mr Trudeau has agreed to consider, has ruffled opposition parties in Ottawa, however.
On Wednesday, just before Mr Li's plane landed in Ottawa, opposition parties assailed the plan in parliament, raising concerns that expatriates sent back to China could face human rights abuses, and the death penalty.
Tory opposition leader Rona Ambrose linked the issue of extradition to concerns about Chinese hacking and a recent revelation that Chinese agents are active in Canada, while criticising China as "a country whose justice system has one of the worst human rights records in the world."
Forced to defend the world's second-largest economy, Mr Trudeau shot back at critics, and ruled out any extraditions to countries where those convicted would face the death penalty.
"We will not extradite into situations of capital punishment, be it with the United States or any other country around the world," Mr Trudeau said.
Seeking to reassure his hosts, Mr Li also said that while the death penalty was needed in China, Chinese law provides for the "humanitarian treatment" of accused persons.
"There shall be no torture of the people concerned," he vowed.
Mr Li acknowledged possible lapses, but said: "For those that engage in misconduct not consistent with legal procedures, they are breaking the law and they will be dealt with by law."
"I can tell you firmly that China is endeavouring to build itself into a country of rule of law, based on international law and international norms," he concluded.