Canada must adjust to the Asian century

Over the coming decades, Asia will become the global centre of aspiration, innovation and technology. Canada’s long-term prosperity and security will increasingly depend on its ability to understand and seize economic opportunities in the region – particularly in the twin giants of China and India – as well as in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia.
What’s more, Asia’s influence is spreading globally. New, non-Western webs of power are emerging, exemplified by the growing Brazil-China relationship, meaning that Canada’s success in other regional markets will depend on how much we matter in Asia.
Despite – or, perhaps, because of – their manifest success, Asian countries are at the forefront of the biggest collective action challenges of our time. These range from critical shortages of water, energy and food, to a need to fill education, health care and infrastructure gaps and to address climate and other environmental concerns. Outsiders who offer practical, targeted assistance to Asian countries to overcome these problems will be well-placed to reap the economic and political benefits.
To succeed in this environment, Canada needs to be visible, useful and creative. Competition for Asia’s attention is intense and Canada has fallen behind. Our reputation as a gateway to natural resources may open the door to Asia, but we need to be resourceful and identify additional roles to keep that door open – be it in education, health care, environmental stewardship or elsewhere.
We must also recognize that Canada’s businesses, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, provincial governments and citizens are already active in Asia and are important faces for Canada. These new diplomats need to be empowered to work on Canada’s behalf.

What does this mean in practice?

To start, the federal government should double-down on its bilateral and regional engagement. Any strategy for Asia must be led, and seen to be led, from the top – especially in countries such as China, South Korea and Singapore, where the state plays a major role in the economy.
There has been rapid progress in the past year. Stephen Harper’s high-profile visit to China yielded many new initiatives, among them a joint study to examine potential for a trade agreement. Negotiations are moving swiftly to conclude a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with India by 2013, and Canada is lobbying hard for member status in the nine-country Trans-Pacific Partnership. The challenge will be to sustain our attention and follow-through. We must not allow our fiscal woes to distract us from this.
Secondly, Ottawa should identify and deploy smart investments to develop Canada’s brand image. Among these should be a Canada Brand Equity Foundation, in partnership with the provinces and private sector, to manage and measure perceptions of Canada in key hubs, cities and regions in Asia. For example, expanding the CBC’s presence in Asia with content targeted at local markets would be a low-cost way to enhance Canada’s “mind-share” in Asia.
Canada’s brand could also be enhanced by associating with iconic, highly visible projects in Asian countries. For example, Ottawa should push to achieve partner-country status for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, Asia’s largest building project (Japan is already there). It’s also time to revisit the argument to build a Sovereign Wealth Fund by pooling our resource rents. Such a fund would enable us to invest at scale in Asia and put us at the top table of global capital partners for Asia’s leading companies and governments.
Third, the federal government needs to find better ways to source and co-ordinate leadership from below. This could include a “wiki events” calendar that would share itineraries and allow groups to “self-organize” events and partner in real time.
Competitions and contests are another tool to engage this sector. For example, for a small sum, we could offer a “Canadian X-Prize” and motivate smart crowds to work on Canada’s behalf. This would involve picking a country and specific problem in Asia (for example, rural electrification in a given Indian region) and offering a prize in conjunction with Canadian universities and leading Canadian companies.
Finally, an overarching part of Canada’s Asia (and global) strategy should be serial experimentation. Not all the ideas outlined here will work, but we need to experiment to see what gains traction. We should follow the lead of the smartest companies that rely on “fast failure” to find their way in a fast-changing world.
Canada is behind in Asia, but we’re catching up. We should build on current efforts by using new, cost-effective tools of diplomacy to show Asia that Canada is an indispensible partner.