Canada faces a simple choice: open up to Asia, or be left behind.
“At the same time as Canada becomes more Asian, India and China have regained their status as world powers. They are the twin engines of global economic growth, accounting for half of all global expansion in recent years. If Canada wants to hedge against an uncertain United States, it must turn east.” – from “Asia: The Human Bridge,” Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age
Open Canada is a thought-provoking and elegantly-presented approach to re-framing Canada’s role in the world. It is bold and original in putting Asia up front as a “game changer” in the context of a global power shift rather than treating Asia as a beckoning market opportunity and sideshow strategic priority. Praises be: Asia and North America are no longer on separate maps.
The chapter on ”Asia: The Human Bridge” draws heavily on the fertile thinking of Yuen Pau Woo and the research of his colleagues at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APFC). In the spirit of full disclosure, I should indicate that I worked closely with him in developing some of these ideas when we served as co-CEOs at the Foundation.
The splendid chart summarizing the recent findings of an APFC poll on Canadian attitudes toward Asia reveals that Canadians sense the power shift even as they are anxious and ambivalent about its economic, social, and environmental implications. Curiously, they feel affected by Asia but not part of an Asia Pacific region.
This chapter of Open Canada makes a powerful case that trade, investment, and human flows are the main drivers of the Canada-Asia relationship. “Open” is the operative word in generating more opportunities for Asian business and investment in Vancouver in particular. The big idea in the chapter is opening trans-national human flows through negotiations with China not just on thorny consular matters, but the bigger possibility of dual citizenship. This is a creative and even courageous ambition in a context of headlines about Chinese espionage [if it's up, link to Dermod Travis's new article on The Mark] and the dark side of more openness.
An implicit assumption throughout is a narrow conception of what government could and should do. Government’s functions are described largely as identifying opportunities, creating regulations, and negotiating international agreements, that facilitate the transactions of non-governmental actors in business, education, and across society. It is telling that almost none of the prescriptions involve additional expenditures or an ambitious agenda for federal government leadership.
This resonates with Conservative ideology but is not enough for a seat at the Asia Pacific table. To take one example, if higher educational exchanges with India are a high priority, how can even energized Canadian universities compete in a very competitive market without the kind of resources and leadership that are being provided by our OECD counterparts?
On a related note, Asian security issues and Asia’s emerging institutional architecture do not make it on to the agenda of the report. This is unfortunate because engagement with them is essential to the Asia Pacific identity needed to complement trans-Pacific interactions.
Finally, there is a subtle but important tension between the narrative of power shift and the recommendations for re-framing a human rights dialogue with China. The recommendations for an approach that favours patient, persistent and comprehensive engagement rather than rhetorical exhortation and public condemnation are a commendable antidote to the values fundamentalism of the first phase of the Harper government’s approach to China.
Canadians seemed hardwired to feel that our enduing task is to bring China into line with universal norms, values and institutions. In an era of multipolarity and rising Chinese power, this mission is facing a profound challenge. We need to start looking beyond applying universal values to finding and promoting shared ones.
Get ready: China is not just a game changer, it is likely to be a rule changer as well.