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NAFTA could be open for discussion

With the ink still wet on a free-trade deal with South Korea, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Canada would be willing to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement for the right price.

Harper stopped in Vancouver on his way home from South Korea on Wednesday, wasting no time in selling the new agreement.

In a question-and-answer session at a B.C. Chamber of Commerce gathering, he said his government remains focused on building global trade, "particularly given that some of our traditional trading partners — like the United States — may not have the kind of growth rates that you're talking about for a very long time to come."

That said, the prime minister made it clear that Canada may be interested in renegotiating NAFTA with the U.S. and Mexico.

U.S. President Barack Obama originally vowed to open NAFTA during his first presidential campaign. American officials have again expressed interest in opening the 20-year-old pact, Harper said.

"We're interested in that as well," Harper said during a chummy interview conducted by chamber president John Winter.

"We just have to remind our friends that if we're going to open it, we're going to open it in a way that benefits both of us, not just the United States.

"The United States sometimes expresses the view that NAFTA has certain loopholes. We don't really see them that way," he said to laughter from hundreds of people that packed a hotel ballroom for the morning appearance.

"We happen to think this was a balanced agreement, but certainly if we can deepen it in areas like labour mobility, access of professional services and government procurement, these are big areas where — if we could open up NAFTA and expand its application— it would be very good for Canadian and American business."

Harper said the more modern agreements, in particular the South Korean deal and another signed with the European Union last year, are more comprehensive.

The agreements cover investment, government procurement, intellectual property, labour mobility and a host of other issues beyond tariffs, he said.

Canada's first such agreement with an Asian country is considered a major step in the Conservative government's international trade strategy.

The federal government is pursuing trade talks with India and Thailand, but a Pacific-wide pact is the goal.

"We started with some small agreements and have moved to some very big ones," Harper said. "Obviously, we continue to look for opportunities everywhere but the big issue is Asia, and the big negotiations really is the Trans-Pacific Partnership."

Closely linked to that is a bilateral agreement with Japan, he said. Until then, the deal with South Korea offers unprecedented access to that market.

"There are some very, very big potential wins here in making Canadian goods much more competitive in a market of 50 million people with linkages throughout Asia."

Later in the evening, while addressing members of the Canadian-Korean community in the nearby city of Burnaby, Harper again promoted the trade deal, spelling out it importance to B.C.

"B.C. has strong ties to Asia, B.C. has the abundant natural resources that are in demand worldwide, including in Korea, and the highly skilled and highly educated workforce needed to reap the full benefit," he said.

"So this province will benefit, I think, probably more than any other, but all of the country will benefit."

Harper also paid tribute to the shared values between the two countries, referring to the Canadian soldiers who died during the Korean War. In fact, Canadian and South Korean veterans were publicly recognized after Harper's speech.

Security was tight as Harper spoke at both events. During the prime minister's last appearance before a business crowd in Vancouver in January, a pair of climate-change protesters walked onto a stage behind him before being whisked away.

"I'm glad we got through this alone on the stage," Winter said as he wrapped up the question-and-answer session. "I think B.C.'s reputation has been tattered."

"It doesn't really feel like B.C.," Harper said with a laugh.

The Canadian Press

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