Indonesia warns of ‘challenging’ trade talks with Canada

Indonesia buys CWRS wheat from Canada to make food products such as noodles.  |  Reuters/Enny Nuraheni photo

Canada is preparing to formally launch trade negotiations later this year with Indonesia, but already plans to include gender, environmental and labour provisions in a deal are being described as a challenge.

The two nations have long flirted with the idea of a trade agreement, with Canada launching stakeholder consultations on the subject in January.

By February, the two nations were engaged in technical discussions.

“We discussed around 21 issues, and as a basis, the technical discussion went smoothly,” said Iffah Sa’aidah, an Ottawa-based trade attaché for Indonesia. “We know each other, in terms of what is the red line, what we can accept, or maybe the potential for what we can negotiate in the future.”

Leaders from the two countries have agreed to taking further steps toward a deal, and Canadian dealmakers are believed to have received permission from cabinet to start negotiating.

Already there are expected sticking points, however.

Officials with Global Affairs Canada have said the approach to negotiations will be to “seek a comprehensive and inclusive agreement to ensure that the benefits and opportunities of increased trade and investment are widely shared, including for women-owned businesses, small businesses and Indigenous entrepreneurs.

Sa’aidah confirmed that issues related to gender, labour and the environment were “discussed deeply” during technical discussions.

Experts have questioned if Canada’s inclusive trade agenda can find success in a majority Muslim country with bigger priorities than trade, or engaging in moral policing, with Canada.

“We call them ‘new issues’ because we never included such issues in our current agreements, and yes, these will be a challenge for us,” said Sa’aidah.

Progress made by Canada on these issues will likely come down to what it is willing to offer in exchange.

Sa’aidah said they will be “difficult issues to face” with Canada, but did not want to comment in-depth before formal negotiations begin.

“When we have entered into negotiations, then we can see how these things develop for the new issues, but for now Indonesia is still gathering more information and this is something new for us,” she said. “We have to carefully study, carefully check what Canada already gives to other countries who give commitments for those new issues.”

Technical discussions outlined “what the red line is and what issues can be discussed further.”

“We know what the red line is, and what issues can’t be discussed further,” said Sa’aidah. “We can see it as a challenge for us.”

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