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Canada must deepen relationship with Asia, experts say

Governor General David Johnston
Governor General David Johnston speaks to David Emerson

With Asian economies expected to account for 50 per cent of global economic output by 2025, it is clear that the rise of Asia has important implications for the future for Canada; however, Canada has yet to put forth a national strategy for responding to the “Asian century”.

This is a problem that Canada needs to resolve quickly, according to many of the 400 delegates -- including  government officials, business leaders, and academics from Canada and Asia -- who gathered in Vancouver from June 3 to 5 for Canada Asia 2013, a conference hosted by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APFC) in conjunction with the 21st General Meeting of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC).

“The easy part in the Canada-Asia relationship is over,” said Yuen Pao Woo, the CEO and President of APFC. “The easy part was selling commodities. The easy part was to attract more tourists from Asia to Canada. The easy part was to have more high-level visits -- sending Ministers to Asia, sending the Prime Minister over on a regular basis. All of these are important, but they are relatively easy to do. The hard part is beginning and the hard part involves deeper integration and more close connections with Asian governments, companies, and partners.

Woo said that building deeper integration may be challenging, in part, because Canadians do not realize that it is “fundamental to [Canada’s] prosperity.” While 51 per cent of Canadians believe that strengthening ties with Asia should be a top foreign policy priority, a poll by the APFC shows that Canadians are less supportive of pursuing closer economic relations with Asia than they have been in previous years. Woo hopes that Canada Asia 2013, along with the APFC’s other efforts, will help to change this.

The case for a national Asia-Pacific strategy

David Emerson, who has served as Minister of International Trade, Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, told the delegates that stronger relations with the Asia-Pacific region are crucial to Canada’s prosperity.

“[Canada’s] market of 34 million spread over 10 million square kilometres is a miniscule market in terms of today’s global economy,” Emerson explained.

“Canadians simply cannot have the jobs that give them the sort of standard of living that we enjoy today if we do not become part of this global marketplace. So, for markets to sell things, for opportunities to collaborate on research, technology and innovation, we absolutely have to connect outside Canada. And we’re not doing it well enough.”

Emerson called on the federal government to take leadership on the issue by declaring engagement with the Asia Pacific region to be a national priority.

“When it comes from the government of Canada, then it infects other government departments at the federal level. It infects provinces, municipalities and businesses,” he explained.

“It’s just ineffective, having every province and every university and every business sector and every municipality sending their own ambassadors to China to create relationships with no overarching leadership nationally,” said Joyce Murray, the Liberal Critic for the Asia-Pacific.  “I mean, it’s very obvious to the Chinese that it is a fragmented and un-strategic approach and that’s just not effective.”

Woo concurred.“[The government is] not doing enough and we know that because the numbers of Canadian companies that are involved in Asia is much lower than the comparable percentage for the United States or for European countries,” he said.

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