Canada and the Asia Pacific: Unsteady interest and opportunities lost

It is now the received wisdom the dynamic centre of the global political economy is migrating from the North Atlantic to the Asia Pacific. Emblematic of this dramatic example of shifting power and influence is the likelihood of China’s economy surpassing that of both the US and the EU within the next decade or two.

And what might be said of Canada’s current approach to the countries and institutions of the Asia Pacific in the midst of this tectonic re-alignment?

Surprisingly little.

This country has been mainly watching from the sidelines, spurned by key players, sometimes clapping, often pouting… and always hectoring.

This is not the stuff upon which durable relationships are constructed.

What went wrong?

A debilitating combination of bad luck, dismal timing, and serial misjudgement.

If could be characterized, it might be seen as a winding and bumpy road, leading mainly downhill.

Slip sliding away

From the late 1970’s, when I wrote my MA thesis on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), through to the early 2000s as senior intelligence analyst and later Director for SE Asia at DFAIT, I spent a lot of time thinking and writing about how best to advance Canadian political, economic and security interests and prospects in the Asia Pacific.

Not so today – it’s just too depressing.

Yet there was a time when Canada was active in, and enthusiastic about the region. The degree of Canadian commitment was expressed through a wide range of diplomatic and institutional engagement, including:

  • the North Pacific Cooperative Security Initiative,
  • the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia Pacific
  • participation in multilateral negotiations on the South China Sea
  • membership in the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council and APEC

Today, little if that promise remains, and neither a handful of bilateral free trade talks, nor a Global Markets Action Plan, nor a “Canada First Defence Strategy” can be expected to substitute.

By my reckoning, Canadian political leaders of all stripes dropped the ball during and immediately after the fiasco at the 1997 APEC summit in Vancouver. The damage associated with that highly publicized affair, which dissolved in a haze anti-globalization protests and pepper spray just as Canada’s Year of Asia Pacific was going down in flames, has lingered. The “Asian  Contagion” mauled the region, wreaking havoc first in Russia and then far beyond.

Fingers wagged, blame was assigned, the media gloated, and this country’s politicians and officials scurried for cover.

Much ground was lost – corporate Canada pulled back and representative offices were shuttered; our only academic/NGO/Track II umbrella organization, the Canadian Consortium on Asia Pacific Security (CANCAPS) was de-resourced and allowed to die; the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference (PMC) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) lost their lustre; high level visits fell off precipitously.

As a result of poor planning and diminished devotion, Canada was excluded, and left wavering on the margins a few years later when the time came to put together the East Asian Summit (EAS)  and Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

All of that, plus severe diplomatic and political mismanagement 2006 – 15, myriad missteps, and a still too high level of integration with the USA has left Canada way behind the eight ball when it comes to hitching our star to rising Asia. This country has been largely consigned to the bleachers, and its renewed interest deepening regional involvement, for instance through participation in the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting, politely deflected or openly rebuffed.

The price of neglect, ineptitude and underperformance has been high.

A salvageable wreck?

Canada enjoys a wealth of energy and resources, as well as some specialized capacity in manufacturing and the service sector which will remain of interest to burgeoning Asia.

That said, the likes of Australia, NZ, Brazil, and many African countries will provide stiff competition, and several are already light years ahead. If Canada’s performance and potential is to be redeemed, concrete evidence of the heretofore missing elements of determination and steadfastness will be essential.

While no longer the centre of the action, two years ago Canada hosted the annual PECC meeting. Although we are still unwelcome at the East Asia Summit, following years of lobbying Canada has finally been invited to join in the TPP talks, recently fast-tracked by the US Congress. By way of build back, I would begin by ending the secrecy which has surrounded those negotiations, and follow-up with a full court press on concluding the deal. That initiative could be undertaken in concert with the establishment of working partnerships this country’s urban diasporic communities, starting with the impeccably networked Chinese, Indians, and Vietnamese. Many more representatives from those communities should be working at DFATD. Cranking up scientific, educational and cultural exchanges, and resuming support for Canadian Studies programs as Asian Universities, most of which were terminated when DFAIT’s Understanding Canada program was cut in 2012, will be  similarly essential.

That said, any focus on human and institutional linkages will yield demonstrable dividends only if incorporated into the development of a comprehensive, long term regional strategy.

Notwithstanding the arguments set out above, at present I can detect no national political appetite for such an exercise.

Plus ca change.