Minister Harper's victory in last week's polls and his majority government provide the opportunity to construct a new, Asia-wide foreign policy, built on the foundations of growing bilateral ties with China, India, Japan and Southeast Asia. Policy stability and strategic planning can now underpin a made-in-Canada Asia Strategy.
Many doubt the use of such overarching concepts. US President George H.W. Bush famously responded to criticism that he lacked an overall strategic direction by dismissing such approaches as 'the vision thing.' It is not difficult to find senior Canadian government officials sharing this skepticism. It is unarguable that in the day to day conduct of Canada's international relations, an over-arching framework will be of minimal benefit to those who have to respond on a 24/7 basis to developments on the ground.
But where both fundamental and rapid changes generate long-term trend lines and transform the distribution of political and economic power, where the future is at least partly predictable, an overarching regional foreign policy is not an academic exercise: it is an essential road map, our road map, however imperfect, towards that future.
We know today that China will be, in much less than a generation, the largest economy in the world. We know that India's population will be greater than that of China, with an economy that will be increasingly integrated in the global system. We know that Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the countries of Southeast Asia, whatever their cyclical economic performance, will continue to generate some of the most dynamic technologies and desirable consumer products in the world.
We know that the effects of all of these developments include economic integration on a massive scale, and Asian-style consultative institutionalization. As of 2008, Asian intraregional trade accounted for 56.10% of total trade in the region. Manufacturing and services supply chains, centered in Asia, define much of global trade. Over 30 bilateral and multilateral trade agreements between and among the countries of Asia are reshaping the global economic system. The Renminbi, China's currency, will inevitably become an important medium of exchange.
Canada cannot not be part of this. We know that a region which is the source of the majority of our new Canadians, a significant portion of our trade and investment, a challenge to some of our values and a potential risk to our security and interests, must be understood as more than the sum of its parts. We deal fully with the EU, as well as with its individual members: we must use the same mix of approaches to Asia.
Thinking regionally will broaden the scope of the trade-offs necessary to conclude free trade agreements in the region. We have been negotiating with Singapore since 2001, with Korea since 2007, and have now launched a negotiating process with India. Canada is studying trade liberalization options with Japan, and are seeking to expand economic ties with China. Assessing the costs and benefits to Canada from a regional perspective, instead of on a purely country-by-country basis, will make the trade-offs more politically acceptable, and open more opportunities for Canadians.
Regional trade negotiations are taking place as well, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, drawing together the United States, Australia, Japan and others. So far, Canada has been cool to the idea. Now is the time to re-examine the TPP option for Canada.
Canada was present at the creation of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the ASEAN Regional Forum. Prime Minister Harper has attended each of the APEC Summits since 2006. Yes, they are talk shops, but that’s in the nature of all international politics, and better to jaw-jaw than fight-fight. Canadians and our national interests, from one coast to the other, are linked to Asia's social and economic development, and its security. Asians should hear this first-hand, from our leaders and their representatives, and take it into account in their relations with us.
Prime Minister Harper has embraced comprehensive regional policy frameworks during the years he led minority governments. He announced an Americas Strategy in 2007, with human rights, economic and security dimensions. This has already produced trade agreements with Colombia, Peru and Panama. The Conservative Government's European strategy is currently focused on negotiations of a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU.
The Speech from the Throne, at the launch of Prime Minister Harper's majority government and its vision for Canada's future, is the opportunity to launch a new, comprehensive Asia strategy.
Joseph Caron, a strategic adviser for HB Global, is a former ambassador to China and Japan and a former high commissioner to India. He is the co-chair of the Futures Group on Asia, part of the National Conversation on Asia of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
This piece was first published in the Toronto Star on May 9, 2011.