Building Stronger Relations with Asia - a Strategic Imperative for Canada

  • June 10, 2013

By Tom Syer

For the past 10 years the Asia Pacific Foundation has conducted a comprehensive opinion survey of Canadians to elicit their views about Asia across a variety of topics, primarily economic. With the growing importance of Asia in the global economic context and deeper trade relations developing between Canada and Asia, BC and the West in particular, this opinion research provides important insights for policy makers navigating through complex public views on economic relations with Asia.

The full 44 page report from the Asia Pacific Foundation (APF) is available here.

This year's research points to some disconcerting trends for those who, believe that Canada and BC need to build closer relations with Asia and the key countries in the region. If we are to benefit significantly from the 'Asian Century,' Canada must forge constructive and more extensive economic, cultural and political linkages with Asia. Of particular concern, the APF survey finds that fewer Canadians now see Canada as part of the Asia Pacific region – only 18% (double that for BC). This is the lowest percentage ever for this measure. The survey also found that there is less ‘enthusiasm’ for trade agreements and Asian investment, and an increasing nervousness towards deeper economic engagement with Asia and Asian state-owned enterprises.

On the positive side, Canadians continue to understand that Asia is economically important, and there is considerable support (highest in BC) for building stronger ties through cultural and educational exchanges and opening more trade offices. However, this desire for more engagement tends to be somewhat superficial, as there is both relatively low support for increasing Asian languages in our school system and a sharp divide in public attitudes toward free trade agreements between Canada and Asian nations.

At a high level, Canadian views on Asia present something of a paradox for policy-makers; Canadians understand that Asia is an important and growing trade partner, but we do not embrace this shift with open arms and a genuine desire for deeper engagement. Asia is somewhat analogous to Buckley's cough syrup for many Canadians - we don't seem to like it, but it works and we want to understand why it works, but just not too closely.

This frustrating and complex set of views is a serious challenge for policy makers. The widespread understanding that Asian economic relations can yield significant benefits is not matched at the implementation level in the more concrete actions that will improve delivery of the benefit set. While the temptation may be to look for programs that directly address these challenges, there is no magical solution to ‘make’ Canadians embrace Asia more warmly. The path to a deeper and mutually beneficial relationship with Asia is almost certainly paved at a more granular level - as successful development projects, economic agreements and cultural exchanges advance and embed more harmonious views of Asian trade and investment activity.

These differences between theoretical and practical understandings of Asian investment will only be bridged, over time, with leadership and dedicated responses from policy makers and business and community leaders, both here and in Asia. While many supporters of a broad based, deeper engagement between Asia and Canada point to Australia as a successful example of a developed country that has responded well to Asia’s economic rise, the reality is that Canada has a long way to go. In this regard there is little doubt that British Columbia will need to lead the way. With our already significant economic and cultural ties to Asia, there is an opportunity for British Columbia to be the pacesetter, building on what has already been accomplished and securing a better future for the country as the gateway to the Asian region.