The arrogant, tactless rebuff by Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, about Canada’s apparent bid for membership in the East Asian Summit – a bid made quietly behind closed doors – should not cause Ottawa to shed any tears. We should not squander energy and effort wheedling to join groups not inclined to accept us, especially those like the “East Asia Summit”, which are little more than elegant talk shops.

The Asian penchant for consensus is why so little of substance emerges from the alphabet soup of annual gatherings in the region. The lowest common denominator prevails.

The Asia-Pacific has generally eschewed Western liberal internationalist proclivities to create strong regional institutions. ASEAN is the most deeply institutionalised and the pivot for other regional groupings, including the ASEAN regional forum of which Canada is a member. But ASEAN itself is hobbled by a zealous commitment to process and procedure over real substance to the deep frustration of even its own members.

Some say it is Asian values and a preference for relationships versus formal institutions, which explains why the Asia-Pacific has evolved the way it has. But there are also deep-rooted fears among the region’s smaller countries of being dominated by the powerful – China and Japan – that stand in the way of real cooperation.

Most Asian countries, with the exception of China, look to the United States to protect and defend their interests. Notwithstanding America’s new strategic tilt towards Asia, its star is fading and its leadership inept. Witness, for example, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Paneta’s clumsy equivalence stance regarding the escalating dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands. Washington cannot even figure out who are its real allies in the region.

The much-touted Trans Pacific Partnership is the latest addition to the Asia-Pacific noodle bowl. Although Canada beat down the doors to get a seat at the table, we should not get our hopes up that the TPP will deliver on a regional free trade agreement any time soon. The TPP was driven by Washington’s desire to encircle China by forging stronger ties with its own allies in the region. Read “security” and “containment” as the principal motivation behind TPP, not “open markets” or “free trade.”

There’s the rub. The more Washington talks up security, the more it makes those countries in the region that do most of their business with China, like Australia and Korea, nervous. The last thing they want is to be caught between erratic America and resolute, rising China. The domestic obstacles to greater trade liberalization among each of TPP’s members are huge not least in the United States. And the prospect of continuing political gridlock after the U.S. presidential election does not augur well for TPP’s biggest champion to conclude a deal.

The Harper government should continue with the course it has set for itself in the Asia-Pacific. To focus its negotiating and political capital on strengthening bilateral ties with those countries in the region with whom we want to do business – China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, and Vietnam. If we can secure a free trade agreement with one of these countries – e.g., Japan – it will be paydirt and others will follow.

The government should also gently remind Asian officials who have short memories, which is ironic in a region that prides itself on taking the long view, that Canada has long been a nation of the Asia-Pacific.

In the early days of the Cold War, we invested heavily in the region’s development through the Colombo Plan. India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and China were among the key beneficiaries of our development assistance.

We defended South Korea’s independence with our troops and navy in the Korea War and later contributed to UN peacekeeping missions in Cambodia and East Timor. Our diplomacy has been innovative and constructive. A Canadian diplomat who was a member of the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Vietnam (ICSC) tried to broker a deal that would have ended the Vietnam war a lot sooner. By his own admission, one of that war’s chief architects, Robert McNamara, called it one of the great missed opportunities of that era.

In the 1990s, Canada bankrolled and co-chaired with Indonesia one of the most innovative track II diplomatic initiatives that brought together officials in an unofficial capacity to discuss issues of joint management, including environmental protection, in the South China sea. And it is probably fair to say the original idea for the six party talks on North Korea was born in the Mulroney era when Canada proposed a joint Northeast Asia Security Dialogue (1990).

Canada has attributes which are attractive to many Asian countries – a stable fiscal position, an abundance of resources and commodities along with skills and services much in demand and an open climate for investment. These are tangible strengths that can be used to enhance trade and investment relations through a strategic sequence of hard-nosed bilateral negotiations, any one of which would do more for our national interest than participation in yet another woolly summit. Our priority emphasis should be to engage in negotiations not attendance at gabfests producing yet another meaningless communiqué.

Canada has attributes which are attractive to many Asian countries – a stable fiscal position, an abundance of resources and commodities along with skills and services much in demand and an open climate for investment.
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