Reading the Canada-Asia Tea Leaves

Author: Thomas S. Axworthy

Among the many issues that were given scant attention in the recent election campaign, foreign affairs must rank as one of the most neglected. Apart from the occasional sound-bite on military spending, the Iraq war, and missile defence, Canada’s role in the world was not part of the mainstream election debate. Perhaps it is just as well that we were not subject to political posturing on complex international issues, but it is unfortunate that Canadians missed out on the benefit of a debate on foreign policy questions that are inescapable for any government.

Before the elections, Paul Martin had set in train an International Policy Review that was to cover not only foreign affairs, but also development cooperation and defence policy. There is every indication that the Prime Minister will continue with this Review, with a scheduled release of the conclusions in the Fall of 2004. In the context of a minority government, political consultation around the review will likely be more thorough than it might have otherwise been. One issue that deserves special consideration is regional differences in Canada’s foreign policy priorities.

A survey released today by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada suggests that there are significant regional differences in the views of Canadians on issues related to Asia and Canada-Asia relations. While Canadians as a whole are bullish on Asia and strongly support closer economic ties with the region, British Columbians and Albertans are much better informed about Canada’s relations with Asia and more supportive of stronger ties with the region, including greater teaching about Asia in Canadian schools.

For example, only 38% of respondents nationally agreed with the statement “Canada is a member of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum”. In British Columbia, the number of correct answers was 20 percentage points higher. Likewise, on almost all questions related to Asia’s importance to Canada, BC and Alberta respondents were significantly more positive than in other parts of the country. Sixty-three percent of respondents in BC and 74% in Alberta believe that “Asian economies are vital to the well being of Canada” compared with 57% in Ontario and 46% in Quebec.

These differences likely stem from a fundamental divergence in how Canadians conceive of their economic and physical geography. Nationally, 32% of Canadians agreed with the statement “Canada is part of the Asia Pacific region,” with 33% answering “don’t know.” In BC, respondents are unequivocal, with 70% in agreement. Alberta is next highest at 39% agreement. The numbers fall sharply in the rest of the country, with 28% agreement in Ontario, 24% in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, 22% in the Atlantic Provinces and 20% in Quebec.

The regional differences should not obscure the fact that there is a high level of support for closer ties with Asia at the national level. Canadians are clearly not oblivious to the dramatic emergence of Asia as an economic power – led by China, Japan, and India – and the political and security implications therein. These findings do raise questions, however, about crafting a Canadian foreign policy that balances the interests of different parts of the country. The International Policy Review should take a hard look at whether Canada’s foreign relations are unduly influenced by the interests of one part of the country over other regions.

What are the prospects for stronger Canada-Asia relations if establishment opinion is indeed dominated by Ontario and Quebec, as many in the West believe, and more than 70 percent of the population in these two provinces does not consider Canada to be part of the Asia Pacific region? Even though British Columbia and Alberta now have strong representation in Cabinet, the key international portfolios – foreign affairs, international trade, and development cooperation – are held by Ontario or Quebec-based Ministers.

The survey findings also point to a need for Ottawa to concentrate its scarce international policy and commercial diplomacy resources where there is greatest receptivity and potential. The very high level of support in BC and Alberta for stronger ties with Asia should be leveraged by the Federal and Provincial governments by investing in Asian language training and area studies, business development, and policy research. This was clearly part of the thinking behind the Act of Parliament that created the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada in 1984, which mandated Vancouver as the Foundation’s head office location. On the 20th anniversary of that legislation (supported at the time by all parties), there is a need for renewed commitment and long-term funding for initiatives specifically aimed at strengthening Canada-Asia relations.

Investing in stronger Canada-Asia relations is fundamentally about investing in the future. Our survey also found a striking difference in the responses of different age categories to the question “Asian economies are vital to the well-being of Canada”. The margin of agreement over disagreement declined as the age of respondents rose, from 47 percentage points for 19-40 year olds, to 37 points for 41-50 year olds, 36 points for 51- 60 year olds, and 17 points for respondents 61 years and older. The next generation is clearly attuned to the importance of Asia for Canada. They will be looking for signs that our parliamentarians share this view.

Thomas Axworthy is Chairman of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, an independent think-tank on Canada-Asia relations, based in Vancouver. Results of the national opinion poll may be found at www.asiapacific.ca

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