OTTAWA (Reuters) - Increasing U.S. criticism of NAFTA is somewhat irrational, since the free trade deal is not responsible for job losses that so worry American policy makers, a Canadian government minister said on Wednesday.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the two Democratic presidential contenders, vow to change or even abandon the trade agreement linking the United States, Canada and Mexico. This would badly hurt Canada, which sends 75 percent of all its exports to the United States.
Canadian Trade Minister David Emerson said U.S. critics of NAFTA should focus their ire elsewhere.
"I strongly believe that the growth in protectionist sentiment is somewhat misplaced and irrational. It's people who are concerned about the loss of jobs over the last 10 years which largely -- analytically -- has been shown to be driven by technology," he told reporters.
"To the degree that it's the result of liberalized trade, it's more to do with the Asian dynamos like China and India and Vietnam, and countries like that. It's not NAFTA that is hurting the North American worker. It's not," Emerson said.
"In fact, NAFTA is probably the friend of the North American worker because it enables us to achieve a level of efficiency and competitiveness that helps us take on the real competitive threats."
Emerson said he had urged his counterparts in Canada's 10 provinces to stress this message in dealings with the governors of U.S. states and members of the U.S. Congress.
"When you recognize that 39 out of 50 states have Canada as their number one export market, you start to realize governors and congressmen at the local level have an awful lot at stake, and we need to make sure they understand that," Emerson said.
"Premiers and provincial ministers are very good, they have lots of contacts. The federal government cannot do it all."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has expressed confidence that, despite the rhetoric, the North American Free Trade Agreement will not be reopened. Emerson was not quite as confident.
"We've all been hearing the comments of presidential candidates, of congressmen. Protectionist forces have been gathering steam for some years and they're showing no signs of abating," he said.
"Will NAFTA get reopened? ... I don't think the risk is zero and you have to plan against potentially damaging but remotely probable risks."
Last month Washington expressed unhappiness over the leak of an official Canadian memo casting doubt on the sincerity of Obama's criticism of NAFTA.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson