John Baird will become the first Canadian foreign minister to visit reclusive Myanmar in decades, testing reforms in meetings this week with the president of the former Burma and with iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The opening of the diplomatic door to a country suddenly floating reforms is part of a wave of Asian interest for the Canadian government, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares to follow his second trip to China last month with new talks in other Asian countries.
Mr. Harper will travel later this month to a nuclear security summit in Korea, and will also go to Thailand and possibly Japan to kick-start efforts to secure Canada’s first-ever free-trade agreement in Asia, according to sources.
Mr. Baird’s trip to Myanmar, slated for Thursday, is a symbolic step to expanding ties that seemed impossible only months ago.
Mr. Harper’s government was proud of harsh Canadian sanctions on the insular, military-dominated regime. But in the past year, a new President, Thein Sei, has released hundreds of political prisoners and opened the door for opponents to run in April by-elections.
Mr. Baird is slated to meet with the President in the remote capital, Naypyidaw, in a bid to gauge whether his move to reforms will be lasting and withstand opposition from within his own military-dominated government, sources said.
The Foreign Minister is then expected to travel to the largest city, Rangoon, to meet Ms. Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 of the last 20 years in detention or under house arrest – but is now campaigning for a seat in a series of parliamentary by-elections set for April.
Mr. Baird’s spokesman, Joseph Lavoie, said only: “We’re hopeful a visit can be had soon. If and when we have more to announce, we will.” Government and diplomatic sources, however, confirmed the trip is set.
A government source familiar with the plans said that while Ottawa is “cautiously optimistic” about reforms in Myanmar, it is not yet at the point of lifting economic sanctions: “We want to make sure advances are not reversible.”
In a note to Mr. Baird, the Network of Canadians in Myanmar, an ad hoc group of expatriates living in the country, urged him to expand diplomatic engagement, encouraging him to open a Canadian office and expand Canadian aid programs, now focused mainly on border areas packed with refugees.
Mr. Baird’s visit will see him follow in the footsteps of foreign ministers from major Western powers, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but marks a major step for a Canadian government that was among Myanmar’s harshest critics.
It also coincides with Canada’s renewed interest in Asian affairs, sparked by the continent’s economic rise. Mr. Harper, who renewed trade ties with China during a visit in early February, will travel again to Asia for the nuclear security summit in Seoul, South Korea, March 26 and 27.
But he is expected to make stops in other Asian nations, notably to push trade talks. After the summit he will travel to Thailand – a visit he cancelled last fall due to flooding in the country – to announce exploratory talks with that country on a free-trade agreement. That step, which typically includes a joint study by both nations, is the precursor to launching free-trade negotiations.
The Prime Minister is also considering a stop before the summit in Japan, in the hope the two countries will be ready to begin formal free-trade negotiations during his visit. Mr. Harper and Japan’s former prime minister, Naoto Kan, launched a joint study last year, and Canada is pushing for Mr. Kan’s successor, Yoshihiko Noda, to announce the start of negotiations this month.
Either free-trade deal would mark Canada’s first in Asia, despite years of fruitless talks with South Korea and Singapore. Mr. Harper has signalled that trade with the continent is a high priority and said Canada wants to join talks toward a Pacific Rim trade bloc under the Trans-Pacific Partnership.