John Baird hailed a "new era" in relations with China, and then set off for Indonesia. He'll find the other Asia is waiting to see if Canada is back for it, too.
Canadians often think they go unnoticed in the world, but many Asian countries outside Ottawa's priorities in China and India have noticed Canada's absence in recent years. We're not the U.S. or China, but Canada has the world's 10th-largest economy, and there are 180 that are smaller.
When Mr. Baird meets foreign ministers from the Southeast Asian regional group ASEAN in Bali, they'll be trying to judge whether Canada's recent signals that it wants to re-engage with Asia are more than talk.
"We think of Canada as a big country that does small things," one Asian diplomat said recently. A bit unfair, perhaps. Canada, arguably, has been doing other things. But then Southeast Asian officials find it odd when Canadians show up at ASEAN meetings and talk about Afghanistan.
There are a lot of reasons why the rest of Asia matters. Global security is one. Clashes between China and its neighbours in the South China Sea have made some look to the United States as a protector, sparking tensions. It's good to have relationships when you need help to press your own interests in the world, and other rising countries matter, such as Indonesia, a G20 member. Ottawa wants allies in thwarting people-smuggling. And the other Asia also represents a way to increase trade, because of its own fast-growing economies, and as another way "in" to China and India.
Mr. Baird, in Shanghai at the end of his three-day trip to China, declared the chill in Ottawa-Beijing relations over, saying "the relationship has entered a new era over the past few years." But he also said while China's "incredibly important" it is "the centrepiece of a larger picture of the priority that we want to raise with Asia-Pacific."
The relationship with China obviously needs attention, as does India, but they're frustrating, too, as the whole word courts them. Ottawa has found it tough to get an investment-protection agreement with Beijing and though Canada helped India get back into the global nuclear trade in 2008, a deal for Canadians to sell nuclear materials to India still hasn't been finalized. Canada needs other paths to Asia, and if it has them, China and India will be more interested, too.
Canadian officials have quietly told some Asian counterparts that Canada is coming back to the region. Canada wants in to the East Asian Summit, which brings together leaders from 16 East Asian nations as well as the U.S., Australia, and Russia. Now Ottawa has to get past a little skepticism.
Canada had a pretty high profile in Southeast Asia into the early years of the 2000s, said Brian Job, senior fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation. Canadian aid was already winding down, but there was goodwill from that past support for regional multilateralism and other ties. But in its early days, Stephen Harper's government picked a few foreign-policy priorities, and told a Foreign Affairs Department it distrusted not to act independently on others. "The consequence is that the things on the margins that were sort of keeping relations moving along all just stopped," Mr. Job said.
There are efforts now. After long-fruitless free-trade talks with South Korea, Ottawa recently moved toward talks with a similar economy, Japan; Singapore talks are stalled, but Ottawa is considering moving toward talks with Thailand, possibly with a visit by Mr. Harper later this year.
Mr. Harper's government, which has tough sanctions against Burma and zero contact, quietly exchanged ambassadors this spring, and is considering small programs, aimed at people not the regime - a show of interest in the region's issues. Seeking to stem the flow of migrants, Ottawa has been seeking allies in police and intelligence efforts, placing RCMP officers in Thailand.
There is, Mr. Job said, no "great flash" initiative that will put Canada front and centre, but showing up and showing interest, sending officials and dealing with Asian issues, is a start. "People will be receptive, he said, "skeptical, but receptive."
Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa