Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lauded the achievements of his second official visit to China, and his efforts to raise human rights concerns, after the widely anticipated launch of trade talks with Beijing was delayed by further haggling.

Mr. Trudeau had been expected to launch free-trade negotiations during this trip.

Discussions were ongoing Tuesday as Canada and China tried to agree on the scope of talks. International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne was absent from a morning roundtable between business representatives and the prime minster in Beijing Tuesday as efforts to clinch a roadmap for negotiations deepened.

Mr. Trudeau, for his part, defended the effort he has put into raising human rights concerns with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. At least five Canadians are in detention in China under controversial circumstances in cases that critics say are unreasonable imprisonment.

“I brought them up last night – human rights and consular cases – with Premier Li and I will certainly be addressing those issues with President Xi,” he said of a planned dinner with the head of state.

The prime minister said he stressed to Mr. Li how important it is for Canada to be granted consular access to imprisoned Canadians.

“We discussed the continued opposition Canada has a matter of principal to the death penalty.”

Business leaders who had journeyed to China to join Mr. Trudeau in opening up trade talks voiced their concern that Canada sorely needs new markets in light of souring economic relations with the United States. After the Trump administration had tabled a series of demands for rewriting NAFTA that Canada and Mexico have decried as unreasonable, businesses are planning for the possibility the United States tears up the continental deal.

“Our biggest risk is that we ship 270,000 tonnes a year of beef to the United States and possibly facing losing that NAFTA agreement … which I think is a possibility that we have to take seriously,” John Masswohl, an executive with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, told reporters at business roundtable in Beijing.

As The Globe and Mail reported Monday, sticking points preventing free-trade talks from launching include resistance to the Liberal government’s effort to ensure that talks will include setting standards for labour and the environment.

Mr. Trudeau declined to reveal details of talks with the Chinese but said his government wants to see future trade agreements “account for things like labour protection, environmental standards and gender.”

Following a dinner with Chinese president Xi Jinping Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau flies to the business hub of Guangzhou where he will promote Canadian business at a global forum of chief executive officers.

China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, has been telling Canadians that Beijing is ready to agree to the same sort of trade deal struck with Australia in 2014.

There is widespread agreement among business groups and trade analysts that the Australia-China deal is not ambitious enough and that Canada has to achieve more – including strong rules to allow them to challenge Chinese efforts to frustrate Canadian imports.

Mr. Trudeau said he and Chinese leaders agreed to co-operate further to fight climate change and promote clean technology and collaborate further on tourism and agriculture.

He played down the lack of progress on launching free-trade talks, saying Canada and China are being careful to ensure they get it right.

“This is not an overnight process.”

He contrasted his warm relationship with Beijing to the approach taken by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

“There was a fits and start approach … a hot and cold approach, particularly in the previous government, to China. We want to make sure the progress we make is solid and steady,” Mr. Trudeau said.

The Liberal leader, who once professed admiration for China’s “basic dictatorship” when asked which foreign country he most admires – because it allows the Chinese to “turn their economy around on a dime” – on Tuesday declined to repeat an answer that drew significant criticism and derision back in 2013. Asked again which other country he most admired, Mr. Trudeau choose the United Kingdom for its Parliamentary system.

“As we look at electoral structures … we’ve had a certain level of discussions around electoral and democratic reform in Canada that have me looking to the Mother of all Parliaments. The U.K. does a significantly better job of programming legislation, getting it through the House,” he said, adding that his Liberal government borrowed the idea of a once-a-week Prime Minister’s Question Period from the U.K., where the leader of the government fields all questions asked that day.

Mr. Trudeau was asked what he’s doing in China to demonstrate he is committed to more than just business deals, but instead subjects such as human rights. He replied that answering questions from Canadian journalists is how he shows he cares about freedom of the press.

“I am happy to be here now taking a broad range of questions from the media on a broad range of issues to demonstrate that I truly believe a free and informed and independent process is something necessary to support for a society to thrive. This is something I demonstrate all around the world.”

The Globe and Mail, December 5, 2017