By Christopher Guly
OTTAWA, April 20 (Xinhua) -- While exploratory talks on a Canada-China free-trade deal are set to resume next week here, the Canadian Cabinet minister in charge of the trade file will be in China hoping to expand demand for a key Canadian export.
Currently, the largest market for Canadian softwood lumber is the United States. But Canada and the U.S. have been locked in a decades-long trade dispute over the wood, which could intensify next week when the U.S. Commerce Department is expected to announce whether it will impose a countervailing duty on Canadian softwood lumber imports.
"Diversification is part of the solution to that," Canadian International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne told Xinhua in an interview here Thursday. "My role as chief marketing officer of Canada is to make sure the forestry industry throughout Canada is healthy."
In his view, there is a significant market opportunity for softwood lumber in China, the second-largest importer of the Canadian wood behind the U.S., which accounts for 78 percent of Canadian exports compared to China's 13 percent share, according to Canadian government figures.
Champagne, a 46-year-old lawyer and international trade specialist from the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec prior to entering politics in 2015, is leading a Canadian business delegation that will pitch Canadian softwood lumber as a must-have, environmentally friendly product during his first official visit to China that begins on Friday.
"I want to make sure that our Chinese friends understand that softwood lumber is a reliable, eco-friendly source of building new houses in China," he said. "There are a lot of people in the middle class there that are looking to move to cities, and my message to them is that wood is in vogue in Canada."
Champagne explained that he hopes Canadian softwood lumber can be part of China's "toolkit" to support the country's climate-change strategy and "promote environmentally friendly construction."
Appointed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Cabinet just four months ago, the International Trade Minister will visit four Chinese cities - Shanghai, Chongquing, Zhengzhou and Beijing - and will meet with several senior government officials, including Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan and Chen Zhenggao, China's Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.
In Zhengzhou, Champagne will attend the 2017 China Green Companies Summit where he plans to position Canada as a source of "clean-tech" industry.
"As we have these exploratory talks on a possible free-trade agreement, trying to find areas where we can cooperate together for our mutual benefit is the right thing to do - and that is why I want to bring in softwood as part of our discussions," he said.