When Prime Minister Stephen Harper welcomes his Australian counterpart this week, he will find in Tony Abbott a kindred spirit. On a wide range of issues – from deficit reduction to climate change – the two leaders are in virtual lock-step. Indeed, the rookie PM from down under may well seek advice from his more seasoned colleague on how to successfully implement a politically conservative agenda in a time of great economic uncertainty.
On at least one issue, however, Mr. Harper should actively seek Mr. Abbott’s views and advice. How has Australia maintained its focus on Asia as a national priority for the country, despite changes in government over the last 30 years? And why is it that Australians view China positively, in comparison to Canadian views of China, even though both countries face similar challenges with respect to China’s emergence on the world stage?
Shortly before Mr. Abbott left Canberra, the Lowy Institute – an Australian think tank – released its annual poll on global affairs. On a scale of 0-100, the “warmth” that Australians feel towards China was 60, just below Japan at 67 and above India at 57. In contrast. Canadians score China at just 4.6 out of a 10-point scale, based on a similar question, according to the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada’s 2014 national opinion poll that was released Tuesday.
It isn’t that Australians are naive about China’s economic and political rise. When asked about Chinese investment or the security challenges posed by an ascendant Beijing, Australians and Canadians voice similar concerns. Forty-one per cent of Australians view “the development of China as a world power” as a “critical threat” compared to the same percentage of Canadians who see the economic rise of China as “more of a threat than an opportunity.”
During the 2013 Australian election campaign, the platforms of Tony Abbott and former PM Kevin Rudd – seen in crude terms as a contest between an Anglophile and an Asianist – could not have been more stark. And yet, on broad Asia policy, Mr. Abbott has stayed the course. One of his first major post-election promises was the conclusion of free-trade agreements with Korea, China and Japan, all within 2014. He followed up on this promise last month by taking the largest ever Australian trade mission on a tour of Northeast Asia.
There is as yet no similar political consensus on the importance of Asia for Canada, much less a national consensus among Canadians. Our 2014 poll reveals cool feelings towards Asian countries, fear of China’s rise, declining support for closer economic ties with Asia, and a reluctance to invest in Asia knowledge and skills. China is ranked as a highly important economic partner for Canada by 35 per cent of respondents, behind the U.S., U.K., and the EU, and down 10 percentage points from 2013. Opposition to free-trade agreements with Asian countries has risen in the last year, with about 50 per cent of Canadians against FTAs with China and India.
Our poll suggests that Canadians seem to confuse personal affinity with economic interests. It is no surprise that Canadians feel the most warmth towards Australia (and the Lowy poll confirms that this sentiment is reciprocated), but why do twice as many Canadians rank Australia as a highly important economic partner than South Korea, when Canada’s trade relationship with Korea is more than three times as large as the Canada-Australia relationship?
Detailed analysis of our polling data provides some clues. Canadians prefer to build ties with traditional allies rather than with emerging powers (not just in Asia), and they are concerned about the competitive threat of countries with low-cost labour and less-stringent standards. They place importance on strengthening ties with countries that are democratic and have a good human rights record. They also fear foreign firms “taking advantage of our natural resources and advanced technologies.” When asked if “our way of life is threatened by foreign influences”, 60 per cent of Canadians agreed.
On the whole, the poll paints a picture of a population that is inward-looking, resistant to change, and fearful of foreign influence/competition. These concerns are not to be scoffed at, but it would be complacent and defeatist to simply accept this state of affairs. Many of the worries that Canadians harbour can be addressed by smart policy and a more fulsome discussion of the options that are available. For example, the bugbear about foreign exploitation of the Canadian economy is at least 50 years old, and can be shown to be false. It can also be mitigated by domestic regulation without resort to arbitrary restrictions on foreign investment, including from state-owned enterprises. And the best response to the competitive threat of lower-cost countries is not to limit economic ties, but to expand Canadian participation in these same markets which are often the fastest growing in the world.
Above all, there is a need for leadership from the political class, which is divided on Asia policy not only across party lines, but also within parties. Since 2008, there has been extensive effort put into strengthening economic ties with Asia, including numerous ministerial and state visits, the opening of new trade offices, and –recently – the conclusion of negotiations on a free trade deal with South Korea. But we were playing catch up in 2008 and we are still playing catch-up today. What’s more, the easy phase of trying to catch up is over. The frenetic pace of the last six years – impressive in its own right – was simply about doing what our competitors had done years before. Even with all the energy that has gone into the promotion of trade and investment with Asian countries, it is hard to conclude that Canada has an Asia strategy along the lines of other industrialized countries, or that Canada stands out in Asia as a preferred partner in selected areas. The possible exception is LNG exports, which the BC government is vigorously promoting in Asia, the results of which are still years from fruition.
We have entered the hard part in building stronger ties with Asian countries, especially China, and it is not clear that Ottawa has the will to deal with the fresh challenges ahead. Fundamentally, the next phase of relations with Asia is not about how we sell more stuff to the region; it is about how Canada integrates more closely with the Asia-Pacific region. It is about ratification of the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (in effect giving Chinese firms dispute settlement rights in Canada); it is about responding to the Chinese government’s invitation to discuss a bilateral free-trade agreement; and it is about not discriminating against state-owned companies seeking to invest in Canada.
Perhaps most importantly, it is about increasing the Asia knowledge, skills, and experience of Canadians. Only 16 per cent of Canadians have lived, worked or traveled in Asia. Unsurprisingly, there was much greater receptivity to and support of Asia and Asia-related initiatives from this demographic compared to the general population. There is a need for greater emphasis on teaching about Asia in the school system, and options for learning Asian languages at a early age. Ministers of education from all of Canada’s provinces and territories have recognized this need and recently endorsed a national conference on Asia Competence which will take place in Calgary in October 2014.
While some will argue that these initiatives are precisely the sort of “foreign influence” that our poll suggests Canadians fear, there should be no doubt that resisting change and relying on our traditional trading partners will only make it more difficult to maintain standards of living and “our way of life,” because of the differing growth prospects of industrialized and emerging markets. It will be tough for politicians to relay these hard truths to Canadians, but without political leadership on Asia across party lines, and a national consensus on Asia’s importance for Canada, we will be playing catch-up indefinitely. Mr. Abbott has said to Australians that “the Asian century will be Australia’s moment too.” Will Mr. Harper say the same for Canada?
This article originally appeared in the The Globe and Mail on June 10, 2014.
Yuen Pau Woo
President and CEO, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (2005-2014)