Bush-Chretien meeting could smooth minor tensions


Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien was to have an informal meeting and working dinner Monday with U.S. President George W. Bush, the first foreign leader to visit the new U.S. leader.

Chretien’s meeting and working dinner with Bush will provide an opportunity for the two leaders to address problems in the normally cordial relationship between the two countries who share the world’s longest uncontested border.

“It’s the most important relationship we have,” said one senior Canadian official, adding that there were nevertheless “areas we have to manage and challenges we have to face.” The new U.S. administration is also looking forward to the possibilities of rekindled friendship.

“It will be an opportunity for the two leaders to review the scope of this exceptionally close and important bilateral relationship and discuss its course for the coming years,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Chretien arrived at Andrews Air Force Base just outside the U.S. capital at 700 pm Sunday (0030 GMT Monday).

Signs of tension in the relationship came early, as Chretien seemed to prefer Bush’s rival, then-vice president Al Gore, to succeed Bill Clinton, as the ideology of Chretien’s Liberal Party is more closely aligned with U.S. Democrats, according to Canadian analysts.

Bush’s failure to telephone Chretien upon his winning of the third consecutive term in office in November, when compared to his effusive greetings and congratulations of newly elected Mexican leader Vicente Fox, rankled some Canadians, according to some media reports.

Bush’s announcement that his first trip would be to Mexico, scheduled for February 16, also seemed to indicate a southward shift in U.S. government priorities.

More discord between the two nations, who do more than US$1.3 billion in trade per day, could come in looming disputes over softwood lumber and salmon fishing, as well as a U.S. ban on imports of potatoes from Canada’s Prince Edward Island.

Ottawa has also expressed concern that the planned deployment of a new U.S. missile defense system might spark an international arms race.

Canadian officials have made it clear Ottawa would look askance at Washington’s possible unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia seen by experts as a cornerstone of arms control.

“The key for Canada is that the U.S. work with Russia to modify the treaty so that it is acceptable to both of them,” the senior official said.

Environmental issues also figure prominently in Canadian concerns about the new U.S. administration, as Bush favors drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which could threaten the caribou crucial to the survival of Canada’s native peoples.

Chretien, who has envisioned a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas “stretching from Baffin Island to Tierra del Fuego” is likely to raise the issue of U.S. farm subsidies, which put Canadian farmers at a disadvantage in international trade in the ongoing U.S.-European Union battle.

While in Washington, the prime minister is also due to meet with the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria, ahead of the April 21-22 Summit of the Americas to be held in Quebec City.

That summit is also to be Bush’s second foreign trip.