Canada - Asia-Pacific Powerhouse?

There is something peculiar about Defense Minister Peter McKay’s statement about Canada’s need for a “permanent, visible” military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

To take part in joint naval exercises with regional allies, and combat piracy, drug trafficking, and human smuggling is not without merit. However, all of this appears to be another pie in the sky scenario in which the navy will somehow find the time, materiel and personnel to carry out these objectives, in addition to its commitments elsewhere around the globe and, most importantly, at home.

The minister is not wrong in demanding Canada to increase its presence in Asia-Pacific, but there are alternatives to developing our relationships in the region other than a strictly military basis. Unless significant investment is made into the Canadian Forces, specifically the Royal Canadian Navy, Minister McKay’s hopes of offering a sustained military presence in the region is all talk and no show.

Rather, while developing closer military ties to our regional allies is important, what does it say about Canada when it is neither a member of the East Asia Summit (EAS) or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)? If Canada is to have any role in the region, it must work towards establishing goodwill and gaining the trust of those countries.

Establishing the Canadian Brand in Asia-Pacific

There is perhaps a belief in some circles on Parliament Hill that Canada can replicate US strategy in Asia-Pacific and succeed. However, one would be quick to note that the US possesses the military assets necessary to maintain a sustained presence in the region. Moreover, Canada has neither the same history nor ties to the region as the US. Canada is, on the whole, a fairly new player.

In an address to the Canadian Council of Chief Executives by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in September 2012, Canada would pursue a four-pronged approach in Asia-Pacific: it would enhance trade in the region, assist in regional security and improve local governance, following through on commitments, and promoting Canadian values.

The goal is not simply to provide opportunities to Canadian businesses, but for Canada to present itself as a serious player in Asia-Pacific. By working in and alongside these countries, Canada can slowly forge and strengthen its ties not only to individual countries but to the region. It is about promoting the Canadian brand--a challenge in and of itself.

It goes without saying that Canada does not possess the same market as the United States or European Union. While Canadian oil is in demand in growing countries like China, there is little else that Canada can offer that the US or EU cannot or does not. For the Government of Canada, the challenge is promoting the Canadian brand in Asia as something more than just another Western market.

Canada is stability, as proven by its economic resilience during the recession. Canada has thus far avoided the economic crisis plaguing the US and Europe. True, the Canadian market may be small in comparison to the US and EU. Equally true, however, is that said market is less volatile; and in these uncertain times, a stable market is a rare thing.

What Canada can offer is its expertise in managing an economy. Do we profess to be the best in the world? Of course not, although few other countries can say they weathered the recession as well as Canada did.

The Price of Doing Business

The job at hand for Prime Minister Harper, Minister Baird, and the Canadian government is to sell Asia on its expertise and the idea of Canada; providing opportunities for Canadian businesses is merely a bonus.

There is, however, a price of doing business in Asia-Pacific. Countries like Burma, Cambodia, and Laos are mired in poverty and corruption. More developed countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam fare better but are not without problems. When the price of doing business is to turn a blind eye to the arrests of internet bloggers and human rights and pro-democracy activists, will Canadian leaders and businesses do so?

Asia-Pacific is more than just Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and New Zealand – countries sharing many, if not the same, values as Canada. While it has been easy for Canada and the international community to wag their fingers at offending countries like Vietnam, there has not been a serious effort at demanding reform (with the exception of Burma).

If Canada is intent on establishing its presence in the region, it must also deal with governments that, as of present, do not share many of the same values as Canada. In these less than democratic states, where corruption and human rights abuses are rampant, Canada cannot shy away. It must engage these countries at every level of government.

Many of these countries would like nothing more than to access new markets. As was with China and Vietnam, it is not a question of ideology (Communism is effectively dead) but money. In the case of China and Vietnam, however, the former is large enough to dictate how and with whom it does business; Vietnam simply cannot.

In dealing with countries like Vietnam, where previous attempts by the international community to demand reform have failed (and fallen on deaf ears), Canada must be delicate but firm. Access to Canadian markets must be reciprocated--that is, Canadian businesses must also have equal access to Vietnamese markets. More than just trade, however, through establishing goodwill and trust, Canada can broach the subject of reform and perhaps influence matters.

However, for such an opportunity to present itself, Canada cannot be regarded as a mere trade partner. For Canada, it cannot be a matter of dollars at the end of a balance sheet. None of this is to suggest that Canada can, without a shadow of a doubt, affect political reform in Vietnam or other countries like it. But Canada cannot, as a matter of principle, abandon its values in pursuit of new business opportunities.

Where Minister Baird’s four-pronged approach to Asia-Pacific is concerned, the core must be the promotion of Canadian values, as if to say, “We are here to work and we are to help; but this is what we believe, and we will not look the other way.”

Looking Outward

There are of course naysayers who believe Canada is wasting its time, and that efforts should be focused at home than chasing uncertain opportunities abroad. Some might even argue that we will invite trouble by speaking out against another country’s internal affairs. All of this may or may not be true, but Canada cannot simply turn away from Asia-Pacific. With or without us, the world will continue to turn.

If Canada fails to establish its presence in Asia-Pacific, others will gladly take its place. Canada risks falling behind, economically and politically on the international stage, if it does not secure and strengthen its relationships in the region. As exemplified by Canada’s current omission from the EAS and TPP, not only will Canadian businesses lose out but so will our ability to have any say in the region.

We no longer live in a world where we can shield ourselves from troubles abroad by burying our heads in the sand. All the same, speaking out against problems abroad does little to resolve these problems. Words alone are not enough. The crimes committed by the offending government will continue to persist.

Canada and Canadians like to believe that they are stalwart supporters of democracy and human rights. We take great pride in championing causes we believe to be noble, just, and right. But if Canada is truly a defender of democracy and human rights, then it must do so, despite whatever inconvenience will come about.

Of course, it is neither the job nor the responsibility of Canada to police the behaviors of others around the world; however, if this country seeks to pursue a principled, values-based foreign policy then there cannot be exceptions.

It is not enough for Canada to engage in Asia-Pacific. It is also not enough that Canada simply wag its fingers when another country does wrong. Canada cannot hope to promote its values in another country if it does not invest in said country; but it cannot and should not invest without upholding the values it holds dear. To cast aside our values as a matter of convenience will damage Canada’s credibility abroad.

Through trade and working with the government on matters of security and governance--such as providing oversight for free and fair elections, and assisting in building democratic institutions--Canada would be able to re-establish its goodwill that has long since been absent in the region.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa who researches on international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.)