Wednesday marks the 45th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While internal relations among ASEAN members can be fraught, its voice and role as the chair and gatekeeper to regional institutional membership remains particularly important to Canada.
The Harper government, largely driven by the economic concerns of “swirling trade winds,” has made ASEAN a priority for re-engagement. Recent ministerial visits by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, International Trade Minister Ed Fast and the Prime Minister demonstrate that Ottawa now recognizes that “half of diplomacy is showing up.”
Southeast Asian officials and experts who used to ask, “Where is Canada?” are seeing Ottawa back on their radar screens in light of these ministerial trips, as well as symbolic events such as Mr. Baird’s audience with Aung San Suu Kyi in March and Mr. MacKay’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in June. These activities, plus recent steps by the Department of National Defence (DND) and other agencies, including the Canadian International Development Agency and the International Development Research Centre, indicate that Ottawa is beginning to attend to the “other half of diplomacy.”
If sustained, Ottawa’s initiatives, especially those announced by Mr. Baird during his ongoing trip, could mark the re-establishment of a meaningful Canadian presence in Southeast Asia.
However, past experience raises questions about Ottawa’s staying power and whether this flurry of activity will coalesce around a coherent, longer-term Asia agenda for Canada. Without a sense of direction and priorities beyond the pursuit of short-term economic payoffs, efforts may become diffuse, ultimately relegating Canada to the role of an unnoticed regional member.
A full-court press is on to establish bilateral trade agreements and gain seats at regional multilateral forums, including the East Asia Summit. The EAS looks to be the next generation of regional, institutional architecture. Canada is notable by its absence.
Whether Mr. Baird’s mission to erase this impression and gain an invitation met with success remains to be seen.
From distant shores, Canada also has stakes in the region’s security. The disruption of commerce, including the flow of energy to northeast Asia, will affect the Canadian economy. In addition, the illegal trafficking of persons, drugs and small arms reaching Canadian shores remains a concern.
The challenge for DND is how to define a level of engagement in the region in line with our interests and the expectations of regional actors. We do not have the capacity for sustained forward military deployment in the region, nor do regional states expect this. On the other hand, we have an interest in sustaining informed and engaged participation in regional security forums and being regarded as taking steps to ensure that, if called upon, our military assets may be brought to bear in a timely fashion, whether for disaster relief, humanitarian missions or patrol, surveillance or peace operations.
Mr. MacKay’s participation at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue was an important symbolic step toward demonstrating our attention to and presence in the region. So too was the announcement of the establishment of an “operational support hub” in Singapore to facilitate the logistics of any Canadian operation in the region.
One of the most dramatic shifts in Canadian policy concerns Myanmar. In various ways, Myanmar becomes an important test for Canada’s engagement in the region as a whole. Setting aside our sanctions policy places us onside with ASEAN members and major regional players. Our capacity, and presumed willingness, to commit resources is minimal compared with others, which necessitates adopting priorities and a willingness to stay the course. Ottawa can be notoriously slow to move. While caution is necessary, and the suspension of sanctions remains contingent on the regime’s behaviour, having proclaimed our support for change, Myanmar and regional states are awaiting decisions on substantive engagement.
Canada needs to articulate a clear Asia strategy. The stakes are high, as are the potential payoffs if we get it right. Our “presence” in Southeast Asia, and in the region as a whole, must go beyond first steps of visits and announcements and must target resources and engage the energies of business, academic, civil society and official communities for the long haul.
Brian Job is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia and senior fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. He is the author of Realizing the ‘Other Half of Diplomacy’ in Southeast Asia: Will Canada’s Efforts Last?published by APF Canada.