Canada must prove it's not a fair-weather friend to Asia

Vancouver Sun

January 7, 2014

Much has been made of Canada's efforts to reengage the Asia-Pacific region. The argument runs that in order to deepen its economic ties with the region, Canada must engage East Asian countries by contributing to regional institutions and regional security in order to improve its prestige. This national imperative is driven by the need to diversify Canada's trade partners as traditional markets stagnate. To overcome accusations that Canada has let its once great reputation in the region slide, the Harper government has embarked on a high profile diplomatic effort to signal Canada's re-engagement with the region. This effort includes a flurry of ministerial visits, attendance at regional meetings, and the announcement of a number of key bilateral initiatives to build the capacity of southeast Asian countries.

Problematically, this effort is insufficient to meet Canada's interests. Canada has been absent from the region for so long that the scale of reengagement effort is monumental. Canada is still seen to be a fair-weather Asian country and has yet to convince even like-minded countries like Australia and Japan that it has a serious interest in the regional security. Furthermore, despite all the talk, the Harper government's re-engagement strategy is a largely symbolic effort. There has been little new money directed toward regional security initiatives partly because, in the current fiscal climate, there is none. This makes higher profile initiatives like rotating Canadian naval vessels to the region laughable.

As a more cost effective option, Canada could leverage its global reputation and competence to build bridges between the Asia-Pacific and the rest of the world. Properly framed, this effort could boost Canada's prestige with East Asian countries and pave the way for the deeper trade ties with the region that Canadian business craves.

Northeast Asian countries perceive Canada as an expert on peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities, despite its declining participation in these efforts. These countries are seeking a more global role in this domain. President Park Gyun-hye seeks to rebrand South Korea as a middle power that is prepared to contribute to global peace and stability.

Seoul is increasing its participation in international security operations and has formed a new 'middle power consortium' along with Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia and Australia. Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo wants to reinterpret Japan's constitution to allow it to contribute to international security operations under strict conditions. Likewise, China recognizes that as its citizens deploy globally, working in a wide variety of contexts, it is in Beijing's interest to contribute to international security. Unsurprisingly China has, for the first time, deployed peacekeeping forces with a security mandate to Mali. These three countries are also increasingly active in a humanitarian context in regions familiar to Canada like Haiti and Africa. In Southeast Asia, Canada could leverage its international expertise to build regional capacity. The Canadian military's expertise in improvised explosive devices could be potentially attractive to a number of countries afflicted with domestic insurgencies like Thailand and the Philippines. Security sector reform is another area of Canadian competence built during the Afghanistan experience that may interest a region afflicted with corruption across its police forces.

These initiatives centre on the idea that leveraging Canada's comparative advantages in niche areas of international security policy present cost effective ways to improve ties with East Asia by demonstrating Canada's commitment to regional stability. These initiatives can be accomplished with the redirection of existing partnership funds to Asia-Pacific countries or by partnering with NGOs and universities to develop training modules. There are already mechanisms in the region to float these initiatives multilaterally, including the Centre for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

It could be argued that Canada lacks sufficient international prestige for this effort.

However, for all the lamentations about Canada's declining role internationally, embodied by lost seats on the UN Security Council, boycotted UN General Assembly meetings, and its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, Canada remains influential in the global institutions that matter. More importantly, Asia-Pacific countries view Canada as a potential bridge between themselves and the world. This is in stark contrast to its reputation in the region as a fair-weather friend, easily distracted by concerns in the Middle East or Europe. Many Asian countries are beginning to recognize the advantage of global influence in the 21st century. Canada is well placed to leverage their perceptions and its expertise to build its prestige in Asia, lower the collective international security burden, and ultimately improve its trade ties with Asia.

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