Published at on March 9, 2018. Reporting by Daniela Desantis; Writing by Luc Cohen

ASUNCION (Reuters) - South American trade bloc Mercosur formally launched discussions for a trade deal with Canada on Friday, in a move officials said would signal an embrace of free trade at a time other countries are moving toward protectionist policies.

For Canada, the talks with the group, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, come at a time when the future of NAFTA is facing increasing uncertainty.

U.S. President Donald Trump exempted Canada and Mexico from tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, though the White House tied the exemption to NAFTA talks. Mexico told Reuters on Thursday it would not yield to pressure.

“We are sending a message to the world,” Canada’s trade minister, François-Philippe Champagne, said at a meeting in Paraguay’s capital. On Thursday, Champagne was in Santiago for the signing of an Asia-Pacific trade deal without the United States, which withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership last year.

Paraguay’s Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga said the first meetings would take place later this month in Ottawa, and Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa said he expected the pact to close by the end of the year.

The move comes as Mercosur is also seeking to sign a free trade deal with the European Union. The prolonged negotiations had been expected to come to an end last year, but have dragged on amid resistance from European farmers to increased imports of South American beef and biofuels.

Mercosur is the fourth-largest trade bloc in the world, encompassing a population of 260 million. Canada’s overall bilateral trade with Mercosur is worth C$8 billion ($6.24 billion) per year, compared with C$48 billion for the Pacific Alliance countries of Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile - all of which have free trade deals with Canada.