February 17, 2009 / 6:27 AM / 9 years ago

Trade, energy top Obama agenda in first Canada trip

<p>President Barack Obama returns from a weekend visit in Chicago to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, February 16, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Trade, energy and the global economic crisis will top the agenda of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Canada on Thursday, his first foreign trip since taking office last month.

Concerns about U.S. trade protectionism and plans to fight climate change will also feature during Obama’s one-day visit, which includes meetings with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Canadian Parliament.

Analysts said the two leaders would spend time getting to know each other while possibly touching on sensitive issues such as Canada’s troop presence in Afghanistan and the U.S. imprisonment of Canadian citizen Omar Khadr at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama plans to close the U.S. prison there.

But the deepening economic downturn, which both countries are struggling to contain, would get the most attention at the talks, U.S. officials said.

“He (Obama) recognizes that there is no larger trading or important economic partner for the United States than Canada, and that will be the primary issue that they will discuss, namely the economy,” senior Obama foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.

Obama made waves during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary by suggesting his support for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which groups Canada, the United States and Mexico.

He backed off that pledge during the general election and analysts said Canada viewed the rhetoric as political maneuvering.

McDonough said Obama still believed that NAFTA’s environmental and labor provisions should be strengthened, a demand of trade unions who backed his White House campaign.

“His view has been that he would like to work with our Canadian and Mexican friends to help them understand why his position makes good sense. This visit will be an opportunity to do that,” he said.

But McDonough played down the prospect of the agreement being re-examined anytime soon.

“Given the delicate state of the global economy, he wants to make clear to Prime Minister Harper and all of our trading partners this is no time for anybody to give the impression we are somehow more interested in less rather than more trade.”

But worries about a wider U.S. slide toward protectionism with a “Buy American” provision in the recently signed $787 billion economic stimulus bill have generated renewed concern.

“This is an issue of economic survival for Canada,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a U.S.-based trade association. “Their economic well-being depends on access to the U.S. market. It’s as simple as that.”

TRADE, ENERGY, ENVIRONMENT

The stimulus bill, which Obama signed in Denver on Tuesday, would require public infrastructure projects to use U.S. steel and goods. Though Farnsworth said Canada could be exempt from the clause, concerns about a general move toward protectionism would certainly be brought up.

“The president (Obama) has been very clear on the record that the provision will obviously be implemented consistent with our international trade obligations, with our WTO obligations and our NAFTA obligations,” McDonough said.

“My sense is that after hearing from him directly there will be no need to take umbrage or be uneasy.”

In other policy areas, Obama is likely to enlist Canada in his push to fight climate change and generate more energy from renewable fuels.

Harper has highlighted environmental concerns, including Canada’s vast oil sands -- a huge potential source of oil that critics say comes at a big environmental cost -- as a priority topic for his talks with the new U.S. president.

“We will be making the point ... of saying we want to work together with the United States on environmental and energy issues,” Harper said in a radio interview.

On the question of Khadr, the last remaining citizen of a Western country held at Guantanamo, Harper will not be asking Obama to return him to Canada, Canadian officials said, although Obama himself could still raise the issue.

“Mr. Khadr is currently in the middle of a judicial process to address some very serious charges surrounding terrorism and murder and it’s not appropriate to raise that with the president in the midst of a judicial process,” Harper’s spokesman, Kory Teneycke, said in Ottawa.

Most U.S. presidents have paid their first international visits to Canada, although President George W. Bush made his first trip in office to Mexico -- irking America’s northern neighbor.

Editing by Eric Beech

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