In another sign that Ottawa is getting serious about stronger ties with Asia, the Prime Minister has deployed one of Canada's most underappreciated diplomatic assets to Southeast Asia. Beginning this week, Governor-General David Johnston is leading a delegation to Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. He will send a powerful message about Canada's enduring interest in the region and make the case for stronger ties, especially in higher education and innovation.
While U.S. President Barack Obama heads to Indonesia for talks with 17 other heads of Asia-Pacific countries, the Governor-General's presence in the region will be an indirect signal to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that Canada should also be considered for membership in the East Asia Summit – a fledgling forum that could emerge as the premier forum for discussions on political-security issues in the region.
It would be hard to think of a more compelling person to convey Canada's message than Mr. Johnston. As an accomplished scholar, acclaimed university president, empathetic humanist and champion of innovation, entrepreneurship and higher education, he embodies many of the qualities that Southeast Asian governments admire and strive for. It should be no surprise, therefore, that a major theme of his visit will be the "diplomacy of knowledge."
Each of the three countries Mr. Johnston will visit holds special opportunities for deeper ties with Canada. In Vietnam, one of the world's fastest-growing economies, the potential for stronger trade and investment relations is vast. Whereas Canada is behind other Western industrialized economies in pursuing commercial ties in much of Asia, Vietnam offers an opportunity to get in on the ground level. Bilateral co-operation in education is especially promising, given the rapidly growing number of Vietnamese students looking to study in Canada.
Malaysia is a middle-income country that is anxious to move into the ranks of developed countries. The Governor-General's message will resonate well with a government that is trying to upgrade its human capital pool and promote innovation in traditional manufacturing industries. Economic ties with Canada took a big leap forward this year with the $1-billion investment by state-owned Petronas in natural gas properties belonging to Canada's Progress Energy Resources Corp. As a leading player in liquefied natural gas production and trading, Petronas can help bring to fruition the potential of massive shale gas reserves in Western Canada.
Singapore is already an advanced country with a highly sophisticated economy led by services and value-added manufacturing. In recent years, the government has poured billions of dollars into biotechnology, information sciences and the development of a world-class education hub. They will be listening carefully to what Mr. Johnston has to say on these issues, given his lifelong experience as an educator, especially at the helm of the University of Waterloo – an innovation crucible par excellence.
The Governor-General should not be shy about what makes Canada an attractive partner for Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia. There is a tendency in the region to typecast Canada as a country of resources, and Canadians as nice but not particularly entrepreneurial. This visit will be an opportunity for the many talented Canadians living and working in Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore to make their presence known and felt. It will come as a surprise to many Asians that, in a new comparison of eight industrialized countries by McKinsey & Co., Canada ranks highest in "entrepreneurial ecosystem" – a measure of the business, education, governance, regulatory and innovation context for new business start-ups.
At a time when global economic uncertainty is greater than ever, especially in the Western world, Canada has a very compelling message of financial stability and economic growth to offer to Southeast Asia. This should not be a message of complacency but rather an invitation for Asian countries to work more closely with Canada – one of the few industrialized economies that remain relatively untarnished by financial excess and poor governance.
As the global centre of economic gravity shifts eastward, Canada will have to work harder just to be noticed. With so much attention placed on the regional behemoths China and India, it is refreshing that Ottawa has chosen Southeast Asia for Mr. Johnston's first trip to Asia. It is well known that the ASEAN countries have disproportionate influence in the evolving regional architecture, and that robust relations with this grouping will help make Canada's case for a place at the table. The Governor-General's visit is important, therefore, not just for the strengthening of bilateral relations, but for burnishing Canada's credentials in the Asia-Pacific region. The "diplomacy of knowledge" is smart diplomacy indeed.
Yuen Pau Woo is president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.