In recent years, Canada has been largely ambivalent about its role as an Asia-Pacific nation. Canada can be a significant player in the Asia-Pacific. Despite strong immigration from Asia, historical links and growing trade across the Pacific, engagement with Asia that was well developed from the 1970s through the 1990s (Canada hosted the APEC summit in Vancouver in 1997), Canada’s involvement in the region has declined significantly in the first decade of this century.
Recently the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has “rediscovered” Asia, at least from a trade perspective, and this year Canada made a successful push to be invited to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations. At the APEC summit in Vladivostok earlier this month, Canada and China finalized a foreign investment protection agreement and there is talk of launching sectoral trade negotiations with China, even as the Canadian government reviews the proposed acquisition of Canada’s Nexen Energy by state owned CNOOC.
Against this backdrop, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada has just released the report of its Task Force on Regional Architecture entitled “Securing Canada’s Place in Asia.” Task Force members Don Campbell, Canada’s former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador to Japan, Pierre Lortie, a former senior executive with Bombardier and other major corporations and Paul Evans, Professor of Asian international relations at the University of British Columbia, have closely examined Canada’s track record in Asia and made a number of recommendations.
They point out, for instance, that while Canada has taken episodic interest in the region, “its nemesis has been staying power and the ability to maintain focus, resources, and momentum for more than limited bursts.” While the Harper government’s new-found enthusiasm for trade with Asia is welcome, the report points out that commercial policy alone will not succeed for Canada. “A one-legged (read economic) strategy will seriously handicap Canada’s ability to compete successfully with other countries that have recognized the importance of a comprehensive and coherent strategy in approaching the region”. What is required, the report’s authors say, is a greater Canadian presence in a broad spectrum of multilateral and bilateral processes.
Given this premise, they go on to examine Canada’s current participation in regional institutions and make a number of recommendations to strengthen this participation.
These include seeking early admission into the East Asia Summit (EAS), which recently admitted the U.S. and Russia to join ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand and India; as well as the so-called ADMM+8 (ASEAN Defense Ministers plus Defense Ministers from the 8 EAS participants). The Report recommends that Canada sustain participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Shangri-la Dialogue, the IISS sponsored security conference held annually in Singapore. It recommends also that Canada consider appointing a dedicated ambassador to ASEAN (as the U.S. has recently done) and suggests that Canada play a higher profile role in APEC by offering to host the APEC Summit in 2017. (Canada has missed the boat in this regard, as a number of volunteers to host future APEC summits stepped forward at Vladivostok and the APEC line up in now seems complete for at least the next decade--Indonesia, 2013, China, 2014, Philippines, 2015, Peru 2016, Vietnam 2017, PNG 2018, New Zealand or Chile-2019 or 2021, Malaysia 2020, Thailand 2022.)
On the trade front, there is a strong endorsement in the Task Force report for completing the stalled FTA negotiations with Korea, pursuing negotiations on an Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan and pursuing an FTA with China based on the recently completed complementarities study. The ongoing FTA negotiations with India should be completed and consideration should be given to initiating a free trade agreement with Taiwan. In addition to this ambitious agenda, Canada needs to participate fully in the TPP and explore the option of a trade agreement with ASEAN.
These specific recommendations in the report are underpinned by pleas for more resources generally to be dedicated to the region, for physical infrastructure to be improved, for greater focus to be given to the study of Asian languages in Canada, and for the development of a coherent and predictable investment policy for incoming foreign direct investment (FDI). This latter point is especially topical given China’s interest in Canada’s resources.
The Task Force report covers a lot of ground; some of it new some of it not so new. It reemphasizes that having rediscovered the commercial aspect of the Asia-Pacific, Mr. Harper’s government needs to take a broad strategic approach and move to deepen and widen Canada’s engagement with the region. The report will no doubt be read carefully in Ottawa, and should be welcomed in the region. While it might mean more competition in some areas for certain Asia-Pacific economies, such as Australia, more competition and the full participation of another credible player—whether in the area of resource development and exports, educational opportunities for Asian students, engagement of civil society organizations, or even on security issues--will bring broad benefits to the people and economies of the region.
At this stage it is still just a report. Its implementation faces economic realities, such as reductions of government spending in Canada and pressure for attention from other geographic areas. However, Canada has a legacy in Asia-Pacific to build on, and a strong economic interest in doing so. If the study moves from report to road map, it will have made a significant contribution to helping secure Canada’s place in Asia.
Hugh L. Stephens is Executive in Residence at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, in Vancouver, with 35 years of government and business experience in Asia. He is also principal of Trans-Pacific Connections.
This piece was originally published in The Diplomat on September 17, 2012.