US-Canadian Ties Likely to Take More Prickly Tack Chretien Expected to Be More Assertive on NAFTA

Article excerpt

FRESH from his free-trade triumph Wednesday, President Clinton will meet Canada's new Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, for the first time today at the Asia-Pacific summit in Seattle.

Canada is America's biggest trading partner, importing $96 billion of US goods last year, putting it well ahead of Japan. Two-way trade between the United States and Canada is about $215 billion. That kind of massive trade should make the two countries best friends.

Yet, after five years of US-Canada free trade, Canadians see the continuing trade disputes with the US over beer, wheat, lumber, steel, autos - now even peanut butter - as a trend of US bullying.

Mr. Chretien heads to meet Mr. Clinton with the aim of fixing things he does not like about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) before he implements it.

He goes, too, with a keen sense that Canadians are watching to see if he displays the sort of independence not apparent to them during the nine years of very close US-Canada relations under former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Canada and the US are entering a period of decidedly cooler diplomatic relations even as the doors of trade between them open wider, analysts and officials from both governments say.

"This Canadian administration is going to be more prickly than the last one was, more concerned about asserting Canadian interests and reminding the US that it is an independent nation with a mind of its own," says Michael Bliss, a professor of history at the University of Toronto.

Though it is certain to be a cordial visit, today's first tone-setting meeting between Chretien and Clinton will reflect some of the national frustration over trade, a Canadian official says. Chretien says the US must negotiate a subsidies code, decide what constitutes "dumping," and assure Canada's energy independence before he will enact NAFTA.

Chretien may also push Clinton on deals he made to woo the votes he needed to pass NAFTA.

One protects US peanut farmers from Canadian peanut butter imports, while another shelters US wheat farmers from imports of high-quality Canadian durum wheat.

These are real Canadian concerns. But it is how Chretien handles them that matters most to Canadians.

"There's a {domestic} political necessity to look tough - not hostile, but businesslike," says a ranking Canadian official.

"The mistake Mulroney made for years was that he was too accommodating toward the US. The Seattle meeting will be cordial, but as issues arise, there will be a need for {Chretien's Liberal Party} to be more assertive. …