WITH his popularity sagging amid a continuing debate over national unity, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has jetted to Asia to plug Canadian exports that can create jobs back home.
It's a page from a familiar script for Mr. Chretien, one that features job creation and economic growth. It has worked well for him in the past, but it may fall flat this time, analysts say.
In November 1994, Chretien won plaudits when his ''Team Canada'' approach involving government and business leaders signed nearly $6.5 billion (C$ 9 billion) in agreements during a fast-paced trip to China. Even though that trip was heavily criticized by human rights groups for its softball approach, it appealed to the general public as an example of government action yielding tangible rewards.
What a difference a year makes. This time Chretien is visiting India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia - a part of the Asia-Pacific region that is of growing importance to Canada. But the value of agreements signed on this 11-day trip is not expected to be close to the China trip's total - $1.5 billion at most.
In a sign of Chretien's diminished political stature, only seven of 10 provincial premiers are accompanying him on the trip. And human rights groups are agitated because Canada appears to be ready once again to gloss over human-rights concerns.
Tack on to that the public's acidic mood since a Quebec secession referendum in October nearly split the country. It all has created a climate where the trip, barely begun, is already generating slaps rather than praise.
In an editorial earlier this week, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail suggested a cost-benefit analysis of such trips to find out if ''these missions are ... a profitable use of the prime minister's time.''
Government officials counter that expanding exports to Asia is crucial. Asian countries bought more than $14 billion in exports in 1994. Canadian exports to the region are growing an average of 14 percent per year and grew 47 percent in the first nine months of 1995.
Indonesia, for example, is Canada's largest export market in Southeast Asia. In 1994, Canada exported more than $390 million of goods and $150 million in services to Indonesia.
Human rights concerns may loom larger in the absence of a windfall of contracts. Indonesia is often condemned internationally for its human rights violations, especially in East Timor. Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony and then annexed it in 1975, stifling Timorese calls for independence.
Pakistan too, is known for its uncooperative stance on child and bonded labor practices and prohibitions on the forming of unions.
An aide to Chretien said that human rights are on the agenda, but Chretien had no list of specific rights cases he planned to bring up. ''The prime minister ... will be raising the issue, but this time it will be a more global approach.''
Yet that approach is precisely what annoys Canadian rights activists - not that their government is attempting to broaden trade with such countries as Indonesia, but that Canada isn't ''linking'' trade to rights.
When you're going into a country like Indonesia or China, ''you have an obligation to raise specific issues, specific cases,'' says Ed Broadbent, president of the Montreal-based International Centre for Human rights and Domestic Development.
''If you don't, you're just saying: 'Alright, go right ahead and keep doing what you're doing,' '' he says.
Mr. Broadbent pointed favorably to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who during his last China trip had a list of specific rights cases he mentioned.
''I wouldn't advocate an end to trade with these countries because of human-rights concerns,'' adds Sydney Jones, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Asia. But ''constructive engagement is of no help if it is just assumed that more ... trade will lead to an improvement in human rights.
''If business linkages are accompanied by forceful pressures, it can be extremely helpful,'' she says.