Raising Our Game in Asia

When Asia’s senior business leaders gather today with their Canadian counterparts under the living roof of Vancouver’s Convention Centre, they will pause at length to admire the West Coast intersection of clean sea, fresh air and pristine mountains, and remark on the stunning natural beauty of our Asia-Pacific port.

And while there is much value attached to Canada’s youthful good looks, it will be incumbent upon these 28 luminaries of global commerce assembled for the inaugural Asia Business Leaders Advisory Council (ABLAC 2016) to push past the postcard moment and get down to the brass tacks of future-proofing Canada for a world in which the centre of economic gravity lies not in North America or Europe, but in Asia.

By 2030, Asia will account for 53 per cent of the world’s population, 50 per cent of the world’s GDP, 64 per cent of the global middle class, and over 40 per cent of global middle-class consumption. That is, in a nutshell, the world in which we live turned on its head.

The growing significance of Asia underscores the need for Canada to strategically deepen and diversify its existing partnerships in the region, and to successfully navigate a fast-changing, complex and increasingly competitive environment in which our international partners are already eating our lunch amid the emerging and established economies of the region.

Canada has made some important strides over the past few years to broaden its engagement with Asia, including ratifying a free-trade agreement with South Korea and negotiating foreign investment promotion and protection agreements with Thailand, the Philippines and China. But more can and needs to be done to bolster Canada’s position and influence in rising Asia.

Canada is a collaborative, trade-oriented, resource-rich, and highly urbanized nation with strong fundamentals in place for doing business. We are ideally placed to not only benefit from the Asian transformation, but also to serve as a bridge linking this dynamic region to the rest of the world. And yet, Canada’s market share in Asia remains low and static, our tally of Asian trade deals is lacklustre (four alongside Australia’s 19), and our national brand remains largely indistinct from that of our neighbour’s to the immediate south.

It is for these reasons that the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, in partnership with the governments of British Columbia and Export Development Canada, has convened a council of business leaders from across Asia and Canada to share strategic policy advice and foster open and candid dialogue on how Canada can realize the full potential of its engagement and partnerships with Asia.

The new Government of Canada — with its youthful energy and enthusiasm for a “pivot” to Asia at a time when Asian leaders have taken a renewed interest in Canada — has a unique opportunity to articulate a more targeted and strategic approach to Asia that both advances Canadian national interests and contributes to the sustainable development of the region. ABLAC 2016 is intended to contribute to that process, and follows the Asia Pacific Foundation’s Building Blocks for a Canada-Asia Strategy, an advisory document released last month that proposes a series of recommendations for the government’s elaboration of a Canada-Asia strategy.

ABLAC 2016, modelled on similar international councils in Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore and Seoul, brings together top-level business leaders from China, Japan, India, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Canada. Its first meeting in Vancouver will focus on three key topics: building Canada’s brand in Asia; defining Canada’s competitive opportunities; and, deepening Canada’s Canada-Asia commercial networks.

Clearly, a strong “Canada Brand” abroad will encourage investment, attract tourists, promote exports, demand premium pricing for national brands, and attract the brightest minds to our country — and this will be a popular topic of discussion and debate today. But unravelling Canada’s competitive opportunities in Asia and exploring the expansion of our commercial networks will open a more intriguing line of dialogue among the new Council.

Canada is home to superior products, services and investment opportunities that have the potential to meet the growing demands of the diverse economies of the Asia Pacific region. But how do we help Canadian businesses, particularly the small businesses that represent the bulk of our economy, better penetrate Asian markets? And how can Canada leverage its strengths to become more competitive in strategic sectors such as agriculture and agricultural logistics, clean technologies, and digital media?

ABLAC 2016 will draw on Council members’ experience in building Canada-Asia linkages through business, cultural, people-to-people, and educational connections. Discussion today will also focus on assisting private sector companies develop stronger relationships and capitalize on opportunities in the Asia Pacific over the long term. What are the biggest barriers to these connections right now? How can we lift these barriers and provide a deeper base of networks and connections between Canada and the Asia Pacific?

Meanwhile, the Council will advocate for the advancement of a domestic Canadian strategy that helps Canadians — particularly high-school and post-secondary students — become more Asia-competent, gaining the Asia-related skills and knowledge in the classroom and through work and study programs abroad to prepare them for an increasingly Asia-centric world.

Ultimately, how Canada responds and positions itself to take advantage of this global transformation will shape its future. Canada’s position is in no way guaranteed; sharing our natural beauty with visitors to our shores is an excellent entry point, but we need to be proactively promoting our ideas, goods, and talents in Asia, where the future is rapidly unfolding.

Stewart Beck is president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, and former Canadian high commissioner to India. He has served abroad in the U.S., Taiwan, and China.

This piece was first published in The Vancouver Sun on February 25, 2016.