US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has said that China represents an 'unprecedented' threat to world trading system. Photo: Reuters/ Kevin Lamarque

Reports on last week’s joint statement from NAFTA countries played up the significance of the promise for an “accelerated” process. But reactions from Mexico and Canada to US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s speech last week, made the commitment to “ambitious” outcomes characterized in the statement seem improbable at best.

“I want to be clear that he is not interested in a mere tweaking of a few provisions and a couple of updated chapters,” Lighthizer was quoted by Politico as saying in reference to President Trump during opening remarks before the start of round one of the talks.

“For countless Americans, this agreement has failed,” Lighthizer said, as Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo listened. “We cannot ignore the huge trade deficits, the lost manufacturing jobs, the businesses that have closed or moved because of incentives, intended or not, in the current agreement.”

In response, both Freeland and Guajardo, while emphasizing there was room to modernize the pact, stressed the benefits of the existing agreement.

“Canada does not view trade surpluses or deficits as a primary measure of whether a trading relationship works,” Freeland said. “Nonetheless, it is worth noting that our trade with the U.S. is balanced and mutually beneficial.”

For a deal to be successful, said Guajardo, “it has to work for all parties involved — otherwise, it’s not a deal,” adding “Mexico is committed to obtaining a win, win, win for all three countries.”

It is hard to imagine how the ambitious US proposals for overhauling NAFTA will be reconciled with a modest update envisioned by Canada and Mexico in an “accelerated” process as promised in the joint statment. As things stand now, it looks more likely to be long and painful.