HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam - Canada won't be pressured into prematurely signing a deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday as his Liberal government flatly denied media reports of a "deal in principle" on the Pacific Rim trade pact.
The 11 remaining TPP economies, including Canada, have been trying to salvage the deal after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out earlier this year.
But Trudeau's remarks, along with signals from government insiders, suggest the Liberals — who are currently preoccupied with rescuing NAFTA — hope to avoid making any hurried commitments on the treaty during this week's APEC meetings in Danang.
"We're not going to sign a deal just because we feel pressured into a signing a deal — we're going to make sure that it's right for Canada and it's right for the world," Trudeau said during an armchair discussion in front of 1,200 students at Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City.
"We're in no rush to do that, so we're going to take our time and look carefully at the negotiations."
Trudeau is scheduled to meet Friday in Danang with his counterparts from the other TPP countries, where they will also take part in the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.
A media report surfaced Thursday citing the Japanese economy minister as saying that the pact's remaining counties had agreed in principle on a way to proceed with the TPP — a report that was quickly quashed by International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.
"Despite reports, there is no agreement in principle on TPP," Champagne tweeted.
Trudeau, who insisted he's a strong supporter of free trade as long as it benefits everyone, also gave a lengthy explanation on why the updated TPP should contain more robust protections for culture through exemptions.
"Culture is more than just an economic good," he said. "When you look at culture as just another economic box to be ticked off or filled, you're not understanding how important it is in shaping the identity of a community and of a country."
Behind the scenes, Canada doesn't want to charge ahead and sign the deal Friday just because the leaders have all gathered in one spot, said a senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
One reason why Canada wants more time is because of the still-unknown outcome of the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the official said.
Ottawa has been seeking changes to the TPP, or even an exemption or side letter, so that it would avoid inadvertently harming Canada, regardless of the outcome from the NAFTA talks, said the official.
As an example, the official noted Canada's unique situation among TPP economies of having a deeply integrated auto-supply chain with another country. Auto parts can cross the U.S.-Canada border a half-dozen times before they are installed into a vehicle and, therefore, more changes might be needed to the TPP's rules-of-origin thresholds.
Canada has also been trying put its mark on TPP, which was negotiated by the former Conservative government, by pushing its partners to include "progressive" chapters on the environment, gender equality and labour rights.
The official said the countries should take more time to get the whole deal right — and to raise the bar.
Trump, the official added, only pulled out of the Pacific Rim deal about 10 months ago, while the first discussion by the remaining countries' officials on how to reshape a post-U.S.. TPP only happened five months ago.
Australia, Japan and Singapore had already ratified the TPP and, after Trump withdrew, the official said they were urging the others to just do it, but Canada has insisted the U.S. departure has deeper ramifications than just minus one.
The official acknowledged a couple of people around the table might say Canada is being obstructionist, but that it's probably due to their own domestic pressure to sign the deal.
Eric Miller, a Washington trade consultant, said Canada address these concerns by agreeing to sign on to a mechanism to review the TPP.
"The countries are going to be deal-minded, but (a review) is going to be more than a legal scrub," said Miller, president of the Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, which has advised different clients on trade issues, including Industry Canada.
"There's going to have to be some new pieces put on the table, but it's going to be less than the full-on renegotiation, where you essentially throw everything out and start again."