Canada and Asia Pacific: Time to Make Up for Lost Time

Author: Amitav Acharya

in Op-Eds  

It is bad enough that Canada is absent in Asia. What’s worse, nobody in Asia seems to care. In an op-ed leading up to the May 2 federal election, Joseph Caron, Canada’s former ambassador to China and Japan and former high commissioner to India, and David Emerson, a former Canadian minister of foreign affairs and international trade, wrote: “Canada remains on the fringes of [Asia’s] remarkable transformation, whether diplomatic engagement, trade, foreign investment or educational or cultural exchanges. We risk being left behind.” This observation is starkest when it comes to Canada’s participation in the emerging Asian regional forums.

Now that the election is over, the Harper government should take a long, hard look at its policy toward Asia-Pacific regional forums, as the past several years have been a period of missed opportunities to participate more fully in Asia’s evolving regional arrangements, especially gaining membership in the East Asian Forum and shaping the agenda of security and financial cooperation in Asia

Canada has been a dialogue partner of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) since 1977. It is also a member of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), which first met in 1989 to promote regional economic co-operation, especially trade liberalization. Canada also played a major role in the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994 as the region’s first multilateral security forum.

But things have been going downhill. The new game in Asia is the East Asian Summit (EAS), established in Malaysia in 2005 to deal with Asia’s political, economic, and strategic issues. Although initially it was to consist only of the Southeast Asian countries – plus China, Japan, and South Korea – India, Australia, and New Zealand were later invited to join, followed by the United States and Russia in 2010. The U.S. in particular is seeking an active role in this forum. Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the U.S. would be “encouraging its development into a foundational security and political institution for the region, capable of resolving disputes and preventing them before they arise.”

This leaves Canada as the only major country in the Asia-Pacific region outside of the EAS. Canada is also excluded from the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) forum, which focuses on five areas of co- operation: disaster relief, counter-terrorism, maritime security, peacekeeping, and military medicine. These are all core areas of security interest to Canada, yet Ottawa was not invited to the inaugural meeting of the expanded forum (ADMM Plus) in Hanoi last October. In contrast, Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, the Russian Federation, and the U.S. were all there.

Canada has done some things right. In July 2010, it followed the lead of the U.S. and other major powers in signing ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and appointing an ambassador to ASEAN. This treaty is a prerequisite for participation in the East Asian Summit.

Yet some suggest that Canada should instead focus its energies on the G20, a global forum for key developed nations and emerging powers, which has proven its usefulness in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. G20 members include China, India, Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea. There have even been suggestions to convene a forum of all the Asia-Pacific members of the G20 (China, India, Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea), along with the U.S., Australia, and Canada.

But it would be a serious mistake for Canada to focus its time and energy on developing such an Asia-Pacific-focused forum within the G20, while giving short shrift to Asia-Pacific regional groups like the EAS. At a time when the G20’s legitimacy as a representative body of the international community is still questioned, an Asian G-20 forum would not be welcomed by many Asian countries, especially those who are not members of the G20. It is not clear what such a forum might be able to do which could not or should not be attempted within the framework of existing regional bodies such as the ARF and EAS, or the Chiang Mai Initiative (which deals with monetary cooperation).

As for the G-20, it should stay focused on global financial and economic issues, rather than get involved in regional political and security matters. The latter would be too controversial, would intrude not only onto UN Security Council terrain, and would detract the G20 from the urgent task of global economic rebalancing, but also undermine existing regional bodies.

Many of the 21st century’s most important countries are located in Asia, and Asian regional co-operation is a vital testing ground for how such emerging powers as China and India play out their global legitimacy and role. Hence, Canadian membership in the G-20 is no substitute for vigorous participation in Asian regional groups, especially the EAS. While Canada should continue to be proactive in the G20, it should not do so at the expense of its participation in Asian forums, nor should it try to regionalize the G20 by supporting an Asia-Pacific G20 sub-group.

One policy priority relating to Asian regional forums that the Harper government should focus on now is to seek immediate entry into the East Asian Summit. It would require a show of interest and diplomacy, and is also attainable.

Much of the past decade has been a time of missed opportunities for Canada when it comes to Asia-Pacific regionalism. But with quick and decisive action, the trend can be reversed.

Amitav Acharya is a Professor of International Relations and the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance at the ASEAN Studies Center at American University.

This piece was first published by Embassy Magazine on May 18, 2011.