US-Canadian Ties Likely To Take More Prickly Tack

Chretien expected to be more assertive on NAFTA

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.''

Chretien's Liberals won the election last month in part by appealing to Canadians fed up with what they saw as Mr. Mulroney's and the Progressive Conservative Party's willingness to sacrifice Canadian sovereignty, and cultural and economic well being, in exchange for a chummy relationship with former US presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

To satisfy the nationalist wing of his party, Chretien must ``appear more combative,'' the Canadian official says. ``The reality of how a trade dispute is handled may not be much different [under Chretien]. But the public appearance has to be.''

The Clinton Administration understands this domestic concern and will accommodate it, a US official says.

``The president is going to take a cue from the prime minister, knowing that he got elected on statements that `I will not go fishing with the president, not play golf; business is business,' '' the US official says.

He expects the Seattle meeting will address trade ``front and center'' but that global problems will take second place to getting to know each other.

``I think it's going to be a much more normal [Canada-US] relationship than was the case under Mulroney,'' the official says. ``He and his people picked up the phone and talked with the White House all the time, bypassing the bureaucracy.''

BUT not everyone is convinced that the new, somewhat more confrontational style Chretien is adopting will serve Canada as well as Mulroney's personal approach.

``You had an unparalleled intensity of interaction between our two countries at the highest level, and a real personal warmth and understanding,'' says John Kirton, a University of Toronto specialist in US-Canada relations. ``Canada was important and well liked by Reagan and Bush. Now we're seeing the end of that high level political access - and along with it goes the assumption of Canada's relevance and a favorable disposition on the American side.''

Canada may want US support at some point but find the US too preoccupied to respond to its concerns, which include:

* Getting the US to participate in a much tougher blockade of Haiti that would cut off everything but medicine.

* Getting US support on protecting Canadian wheat subsidies during the last stage of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks next month.

* Accommodating any moves Canada might make to unilaterally protect Atlantic fishing grounds.

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