Canada shouldn’t hesitate to start free trade talks with China, despite being in the thick of NAFTA negotiations, according to a former Canadian ambassador to China.

“People can walk and chew gum at the same time," Howard Balloch told BNN in an interview Thursday. "I think it’s a very good time to do it. It’s not going to slow down the complex and very difficult NAFTA negotiations, which is a key priority for the government and should be.”

“But they should be able to negotiate with China.”

Reports surfaced earlier this week that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would travel to China next month to discuss a possible free trade deal.

The two countries began exploring the idea of an agreement over a year ago when Trudeau and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang held meetings in China and Ottawa.

Three rounds of exploratory talks were then held between February and August. 

Balloch emphasized Canada’s “huge interest” in China, which he says “could be expanded very substantially no matter what happens in the NAFTA talks.”

He argues NAFTA negotiations will likely “come to a head” by the time Canada and China could finalize an agreement.

“I think it’s really important for Canadians to recognize the China market is huge,” he said. “Canadian companies, Canadian goods face many more barriers in China than Chinese goods face in Canada.”

“We have actually more to gain in a comprehensive agreement with China than they have with us.”

With files from The Canadian Press