Canada has not yet developed a comprehensive strategy towards Asia-Pacific. It may need to develop one in the current context, in which Asia’s influence and economic and political clout continue to rise.
Canada’s International Policy Statement (IPS, 2005) was an attempt to provide an integrated framework for relations with various regions of the world, but it suffered from a lack of implementation mechanisms and an over-emphasis on security issues in shaping the country’s global priorities and positions.
The IPS was the first document of its kind to try to integrate all the state’s major international tools. Inspired by the idea of a more active Canada on the international stage – a country that has to reposition itself in relation to a new global environment – the document articulated Canada’s priorities in four key areas of interest: defence, diplomacy, development, and commerce. References to education (e.g., attracting international students for study in Canada) were few and far between.
The IPS was designed as a novel lens offering enhanced reflections of a changing world in which Canada reinvents itself, and as a platform for further conceptualization of government positions on international affairs. It focused on (i) a more dynamic diplomacy and the rethinking of relations with emerging world powers, including China and India; (ii) a stronger emphasis on development cooperation and a clearer set of criteria for providing bilateral aid; (iii) the reconfiguration of Canada’s priorities in the area of commerce; and (iv) the overhaul of the country’s security and defence priorities. Specialized but promising areas of cooperation – services such as education, tourism, finance, etc. – were largely left out of this framework.
As a blueprint for action in the international realm, the IPS was a useful addition to Canada’s policy toolbox, received positively by practitioners and scholars alike. The defeat of Paul Martin’s Liberal Government in 2006 would, nonetheless, minimize the impact of this document within official circles. The Conservatives’ Canada First outline replaced the IPS as the key security and defence blueprint, but no corresponding policy instruments have been proposed in the areas of trade, diplomacy and development – or an overarching framework bringing together more specialized areas of international cooperation.
The media reported in late 2011 that Canada is crafting a new, comprehensive foreign policy strategy. This would be a welcome development, allowing the country to establish a whole-of-government roadmap for international engagement, which would also provide the conditions for close coordination of federal initiatives with those of other stakeholders (provincial, territorial and municipal governments, educational institutions, NGOs, etc.)
Canada may be able to not only realign and streamline its foreign priorities, but to also identify areas of cooperation and coordination with its main trading partner and ally – the United States – in relation to Asia-Pacific. Canada must consider in the context of a foreign policy review the fact that the United States considers this region as crucial to its own future. In this context, it is preferable to streamline initiatives than to compete directly with US actors in a new world market, whenever possible.
Many analysts, in both Canada and the United States, perceive a need to develop relations with Asia starting with a solid economic foundation, which will shape the nature of those relations and prioritize the two countries’ specific interests in the Asia-Pacific region. A Canadian strategy toward deepening relations with Asia should be, in Wendy Dobson’s view, “multifaceted, with regional, bilateral and security […] dimensions. It should include a new commitment to Asia’s evolving and increasingly significant institutional architecture” [International Journal, Autumn 2009].
Dobson’s analysis indicates however that Canadians “don’t give any signal of Asia as an enduring focus of our foreign policy,” while Jack Austin points out that Canadians “are not negative about Asia, they’re just not aware of their own self interest in terms of what’s going on” in the region [International Journal, Autumn 2009]. To change this state of affairs and effectively promote Canadian interests across the globe, but particularly in Asia, a new impetus is needed to engage Asia-Pacific countries forcefully.
This could be accomplished through a new Asia-Pacific strategy and the identification of well suited implementation mechanisms. This strategy should concentrate not just on high-level objectives, but also on the promotion of specific Canadian interests, in those sectors in which Canada holds a competitive advantage. Considering the importance of developing and deepening trade relations with Asian partners, Canada needs to give special attention to establishing and developing linkages in key areas such as education, financial services, tourism, and the knowledge-based economy.
A new international policy framework or a set of coordinated policy positions would provide an integrated roadmap to engaging various regions around the world, particularly Asia-Pacific. Given the rising importance of this region in global affairs, a foreign policy review that would elevate its position in Canada’s list of international priorities would provide coherence to current ad hoc efforts to strengthen Canada-Asia relations.
An Asian strategy should establish the principles for engagement, while being implemented through flexible mechanisms that would allow for sector/country re-prioritization in light of changing developments occurring across the region. A nationally coordinated strategy would also allow Canadian stakeholders to realize “economies of scale” in their overseas promotion and investment efforts and, consequently, to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of their initiatives in an environment of financial restraint. Education is, from all these perspectives, a great place to start.