When Stephen Harper was born, Canada was an Atlantic nation. Today, it is increasingly a Pacific nation. The Prime Minister is starting to figure this out.
Mr. Harper is in Singapore this weekend, attending the annual summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC), the association of Pacific rim countries. From there, he proceeds to India for three days. In early December, he returns to Asia, with visits to China and South Korea. These are his first visits to any of these lands, and it's high time.
While successive Liberal and Conservative governments have let Canada's market share in Asian trade stagnate or erode, other countries have been profiting from the surging economic growth of China and India - at our expense. While our politicians obsessed over minority government high jinks and other parochial concerns, the axis of the world began shifting from West to East. In Ottawa, this is finally starting to sink in.
"The world moved on," observes Rana Sarker, head of the Canada-India Business Council, "while we were otherwise occupied."
Canada's neglect of its Asian interests is perverse, since most of the 250,000 people who immigrate here every year are from Asia, giving this country a potential edge. Mr. Harper's upcoming excursions are his strongest commitment yet to repair that neglect.
"We want to make sure that the Chinese economic engine, as it pulls the global economy along, has Canada in one of the front cars," says Yuen Pau Woo, president and chief executive officer of the Asia Pacific Foundation.
But that's an ambitious goal, for a country in the caboose.
In 1997, 1.4 per cent of everything imported into China came from Canada. The number steadily declined, bottoming out at 0.97 per cent in 2006, before modestly improving to 1.1 per cent in 2008.
Canada now imports more than $40-billion worth of goods from China - four times as much as it exports to it. Charles Burton, a Brock University professor whose report earlier this year on the Canada-China relationship caused a stir in government circles, calls the figures "appalling."
"We are losing in China because we are not allocating the sort of resources and long-range planning that's necessary," he laments.
In part, Prof. Burton points out, neglect of overseas markets is a consequence of minority government, where domestic considerations trump foreign-policy concerns. But playing down the Chinese relationship, in particular, was a conscious Conservative government policy. Mr. Harper calculated that he could score political points by criticizing China's human-rights record while simultaneously encouraging expanded trade ties.
"I don't think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values, our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights," Mr. Harper told reporters in 2006. "They don't want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar."
"This was noticed," says Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and an authority on Canadian foreign policy.
The Chinese government warned Canada against "pointing fingers." The exchange marked a nadir in Sino-Canadian relations, after years of efforts by Liberal prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin to improve Canadian access to Chinese markets, though with results that were, at best, ambiguous.
As for Canada's relations with India, the other emerging power in Asia, "we neglected each other for several years," says Shashishekhar Gavai, India's High Commissioner to Canada. "One could perhaps describe it as benign neglect."
But "that situation has changed quite rapidly," Mr. Gavai says.
What caused the change was a growing realization that trade cannot be separated from politics. "The cord between economic and political issues wasn't so easily severed," Mr. Woo says. Not only was it costing Canada in lost trade overseas, he observes, but "bashing China turned out to be at best neutral and at worst a vote-loser."
China is our largest single source of immigrants, followed by India. Unlike many previous immigrants, who were fleeing oppressive regimes, new Canadians from China and India retain close ties with their former homelands and do not appreciate frosty or neglectful relations between Ottawa and the old country.
Our software needs to be updated. We're running Global 2.0 and the world has gone on to Version 4. Rana Sarker, head of the Canada-India Business Council
For the Conservatives, who believe that the economic and social conservatism of many new immigrants makes them potential converts in critical suburban swing ridings, improving relations with China and India has become a domestic political concern.
Beyond that, the shocks of the global recession have brought home to everyone, including the country's leadership, the growing economic power of China and India.