MEMBER of Parliament John Weston is robustly defending Canada's new bilateral trade agreement with China, saying it represents a significant breakthrough with the Asian giant.
"The level of transparency anticipated by this agreement is higher than any other China has agreed to," the MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country said in a phone interview from Ottawa recently.
As an international lawyer who spent a decade in Asia, Weston said he wished the agreement had been in place "when clients of mine were reliant on the Chinese judicial system."
The Foreign Investment and Protection Agreement (FIPA), which the Conservative government can now ratify by order-in-council, became the target of a mass letter-writing campaign to MPs and newspapers, some of it spearheaded by the advocacy group Leadnow.ca, which calls the FIPA "the most disturbing trade deal in a generation."
The Green Party, the federal NDP, and academics including Osgoode Hall Law School professor Gus Van Harten, an international treaty expert, have also come out strongly against the pact. Critics say the FIPA short-changes Canadian interests by favouring China for market access and could lead to costly arbitration settlements for Canadian taxpayers.
But Weston said the deal sets new standards for transparency. Article 28, he said, guarantees public access to relevant documents and awards, and sets terms for public hearings when disputes occur. It also "deftly" protects commercial interests from indiscreet disclosure of sensitive information.
This is new "transparency language" for China, he said.
At the same time, "both Canada and China retain the right to regulate in the public interest, and both parties have committed to do so in a non-discriminatory manner," Weston said. "And we still have all sorts of best-practices laws and regulations that all foreign investors have to adhere to."
Weston called FIPA "a critical step for attracting foreign investment" and said it is consistent with bilateral agreements negotiated by Canada with 24 other countries.
"With this agreement in place, for the first time, Canadian investors in the world's second-biggest economy will have recourse to independent, trustworthy and well-respected international arbitration systems," he wrote in his response letter to concerned constituents. "Our government has an ambitious pro-trade agenda and is committed to opening markets in the Asia-Pacific."
Answering critics of the process, Weston noted that in 2008 the Conservatives introduced a new policy of tabling international treaties in the House of Commons, reflecting the government's "commitment to transparency and accountability."
The agreement with China, he said, does not represent the kind of "sea change" that NAFTA ushered in. "It's not a difference in the way we do business," he said.
Weston said he attended a briefing in Ottawa with foreign affairs officials arranged by the Green Party's Elizabeth May, discussed FIPA with Minister of International Trade Ed Fast and officials in his department, and "did a lot of homework" in an effort to understand the agreement.