Realizing the Other Half of Diplomacy in Southeast Asia
Published: 07 Août 2012
ASEAN is a growing priority for re-engagment for Canada with recent ministerial visits indicating that Ottawa is beginning to attend to the ‘other half of diplomacy’ in Southeast Asia. If sustained, Ottawa’s initiatives could mark the re-establishment of a meaningful Canadian presence in Southeast Asia. However, past experience raises questions regarding Ottawa’s staying power, and whether this flurry of activity will coalesce around a coherent, longer-term, Asia agenda for Canada.
Today marks the 45th anniversary of ASEAN’s founding. While internal relations among ASEAN members can be fraught, its voice and role as the chair and gatekeeper to regional institutional membership remains particularly important to Canada.
The Harper government, largely driven by the economic concerns of “swirling trade winds,” has made ASEAN a growing priority for re-engagement. Recent ministerial visits by Foreign Minister Baird, Defence Minister MacKay, Trade Minister Fast, and the Prime Minister demonstrate that Ottawa now recognizes that “half of diplomacy is showing up.”
Southeast Asian officials and experts who used to ask, “where is Canada?” are seeing Ottawa back on their radar screens in light of these ministerial trips, and symbolic events such as Baird’s audience with Aung San Suu Kyi in March, and Defence Minister MacKay’s speech at the Shangri-la Dialogue in June. These activities, plus recent steps by the Department of National Defence (DND) and other agencies, including CIDA and the International Development Research Centre, indicate that Ottawa is beginning to attend to the “other half of diplomacy.”
If sustained, Ottawa’s initiatives, especially those announced by Baird during his ongoing trip, could mark the re-establishment of a meaningful Canadian presence in Southeast Asia.
However, past experience raises questions regarding Ottawa’s staying power, and whether this flurry of activity will coalesce around a coherent, longer-term, Asia agenda for Canada. Without a sense of direction and priorities beyond the pursuit of short-term economic pay-offs, efforts may become diffuse and diffused, ultimately relegating Canada to be an unnoticed regional member.
A full-court press is on to establish bilateral trade agreements and gain seats at regional multilateral forums, including the East Asia Summit (EAS). The EAS looks to be, or be the precursor to, the next generation of regional, institutional architecture. Canada is notable by its absence.
Whether Baird’s mission to erase this impression and gain an invitation met with success remains to be seen.
From distant shores, Canada also has stakes in the region’s security. Disruption of commerce, including the energy flows to Northeast Asia, will impact the Canadian economy. In addition, the illegal trafficking of persons, drugs, and small arms reaching Canadian shores remains a concern.
The challenge for DND is how to define a level of engagement in the region in line with our interests and the expectations of regional actors. We do not have the capacity for sustained forward military deployment in the region, nor do regional states expect this. On the other hand, we have an interest in sustaining informed and engaged participation in regional security forums and being regarded as taking steps to ensure that, if called upon, our military assets may be brought to bear in a timely fashion, whether for disaster relief, humanitarian missions, or patrol, surveillance, or peace operations.
Defence Minister Mackay’s participation at this year’s Shangri-la Dialogue was an important symbolic step towards demonstrating our attention to and presence in the region. So too was the announcement of establishment of an “operational support hub” in Singapore to facilitate the logistics of any Canadian operation in the region.
One of the most dramatic shifts in Canadian policy concerns Burma. In various ways, Burma becomes an important test for Canada’s engagement in the region as a whole.
Setting aside our sanctions policy places us onside with ASEAN members and major regional players. Our capacity, and presumed willingness, to commit resources is minimal compared to others, which necessitates adopting priorities, and a willingness to stay the course. Ottawa can be notoriously slow to move. While caution is necessary, and suspension of sanctions remains contingent on the regime’s behaviour, having proclaimed our support for change, Burma and regional states are awaiting decisions on follow-on, substantive engagement.
Canada needs to articulate a clear Asia strategy. The stakes are high, as are the potential pay-offs if we get it right. Our ‘presence’ in Southeast Asia, and in the region as a whole, must go beyond first steps of visits and announcements and must target resources and engage the energies of business, academic, civil society, and official communities for the long haul.
This piece was first published in The Globe and Mail on August 8, 2012.
Brian Job is Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia and Senior Fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APF Canada). This op-ed is based on a new Canada-Asia Agenda entitled "Realizing the ‘Other Half of Diplomacy’ in Southeast Asia: Will Canada’s Efforts Last?" published by APF Canada.