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Canada should woo East Asia, a new economic frontier Add to ...

The leaders of Canada's parties could have used this election to infuse Canada's citizens with excitement about the whole of East Asia - China not least - as a new economic frontier, to Canada's west, as a land of promise for which they should ready themselves. Canada's politicians could have stirred the electors with a sense of possibility.

Instead, they have reinforced Canadians' preoccupation with themselves and their perfectly proper concerns with their health and their savings. When it comes to East Asia, the major parties have resorted to the humdrum.

In their platform, the Conservatives sensibly enough, but uninspiringly, emphasize an infrastructure theme. That is, they promise to complete the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative, to facilitate shipping and receiving with East Asia - though progress has been slowed by rigid labour practices and unresolved issues with First Nations. Beyond that, they baldly assert that they have taken "major steps forward in trade relations with China."

As for the Liberals, they call for a return to the Team Canada approach of the Chrétien government - a technique that Yuen Pau Woo, the CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, has described as out of date; given the burgeoning of trade missions in China in recent years, another Team Canada might easily get lost in the crowds. On the other hand, the personal diplomacy of senior leaders is perennially valuable in China, a style that Stephen Harper is not keen on.

The Liberals complain that the Conservatives have failed to conclude a trade agreement with any Asian country. They do not mention that just such an agreement with South Korea is nearly complete; nor do they urge that it be moved ahead with, in spite of some objections from the U.S.-owned automobile companies in Canada.

Canada is on the verge of success with South Korea. It should negotiate many such agreements in the region, for example, with Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Though China is much the biggest and richest developing country in East Asia, Canada would get more of Beijing's attention if it succeeded in expanding its economic relations with China's neighbours, some of which are China's lower-cost competitors.

At a time when World Trade Organization negotiations are stalled, though the WTO remains the key trade framework, Canada should be hyperactive in pursuing bilateral agreements, and in not merely joining but actually participating in regional organizations such as ASEAN. Moreover, Ottawa should at least acknowledge the theoretical possibility that supply management is negotiable, thus letting Canada into the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

This is a moment when the Chinese are particularly open to foreign commerce - and not just to materials such as wood and iron ore. The authorities in Beijing don't have to worry about elections, but they are made anxious by expressions of popular discontent at rising prices; inflation is now running at around 5.4 per cent. Imports at a more favourable exchange rate to Chinese consumers and businesses increase their purchasing power and reduce inflation. Canada - both firms and governments - should now be putting its mind to more valued-added exports to China.

Australia is far ahead of Canada in having a free trade agreement with China, but its experience shows that commercial treaties need to be complemented by agreements relating to the rule of law, and to human rights. In 2009, the Chinese authorities prosecuted and convicted a Chinese-born Australian citizen, Stern Hu, an executive of the mining multinational Rio Tinto, on charges of appropriating commercial secrets. Canada is not immune to such problems, especially because Canadians of Chinese birth or ancestry can be very useful in business dealings with China - and sooner or later some of them will run into difficulties like Mr. Hu's.

Along with trade, the Canadian government should negotiate for independent legal representation of Canadians who get into legal trouble and consular access to them. Similarly, there should be an extradition treaty between Canada and China that embodies liberal principles of due process and human rights. Such arrangements could well have a wider good influence in China, beyond cases involving Canadians.

"Canadians are sleepwalking, as if a highly competitive international environment did not exist," says Lawrence Herman, a trade lawyer at Cassels Brock LLP. In this election, the country's leaders are doing little to broaden the voters' vision. Canadians should realize that Vancouver is closer to Beijing than Sydney, Australia, and that the shipping time to China from B.C. is significantly shorter than it is from California. Tax policies and health care are important - but so are Canada's commercial and investment relations with the world, especially with the rising region of East Asia.

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