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Tourists from China check out the totem poles in Vancouver's Stanley Park on Thursday. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Tourists from China check out the totem poles in Vancouver's Stanley Park on Thursday. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Polls suggests Canadians appear less interested in building relations with East Add to ...

On the ninth floor of a Granville Street high-rise, Irene Quan has a rapt audience for a very West Coast session. Members of the downtown Vancouver business improvement association have gathered to hear how local retailers can better target Chinese tourists visiting the city, as well as Chinese-Canadians building lives here.

Ms. Quan has a bit of an advantage in this area: She works for Hong Kong-based Tom Lee Music, which has seven stores across British Columbia, and many Chinese shopping in Vancouver will recognize the brand.

But the firm’s success selling high-end products to the Chinese demographic in B.C. is still staggering: She says nearly 70 per cent of the Steinway pianos they sold to consumers between 2007 and 2012 went to Chinese families, some of whom spent more than $100,000 on a piano for their kids.

“The child is at the centre,” Ms. Quan says, in one of the session’s many blunt assessments of Chinese consumers, as she outlined a strategy of targeting Chinese consumers in part by hauling Steinways out to luxury car showcases.

The session is an example of how businesses in Vancouver pay close attention to economic opportunities emanating from the rise of China – a small window into the province’s broader, Asia-focused economy. B.C. now exports 44 per cent of its goods to Asia – nearly as much as it does to the U.S., and far more than any other Canadian province – and has business people and politicians who relentlessly pursue opportunities across the Pacific.

But unlike B.C., many think Canada as a whole is not as eastward-facing as it should be, and lacks a coherent national strategy toward the region. Indeed, even as surging economies across the Asia-Pacific region reorder the global economy, new polling results show Canadians are becoming less interested in attracting investment from Asian countries and see their economic future less tied to Asia.

As other countries strike free trade agreements in Asia, boost diplomatic presence in the region and reorient their education systems to teach Asian languages and culture, some wonder whether Canada is looking east fast enough.

For obvious reasons, Canada has long concentrated on southward ties with the United States. But even as the rise of China and other Asian economies has changed the landscape of global manufacturing and created new markets for products like BlackBerrys – which still sell well in emerging markets such as Indonesia – Canada has actually grown colder toward the idea of increasing ties with Asia.

New poll results from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a non-profit which promotes ties with Asia, show that the number of Canadians who want closer ties with countries such as China or South Korea has fallen since last year – to 41 per cent of those polled, from 50 per cent.

The percentage of those who think economic and political relations with nations in East, Southeast and South Asia should be Canada’s top foreign policy priority also dropped sharply, to just 37 per cent in 2014 from 55 per cent in 2012 . The fall-off came mostly from Canadians aged 55 or older and were particularly pronounced with regard to China, which is Canada’s second largest trading partner. There was also less support for teaching Asian languages or history, even as the region grows in importance. People fear Chinese investment in Canada’s natural resources, and prefer to do business with like-minded democracies.

Many suggest Canadian politicians and business leaders remain reluctant to make the dramatic changes in strategy, trade and education that other countries, such as Australia, are already making for the new century.

“Having Asia competence in Canada really matters,” says David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador to China. “But it is an investment in time. It is a bit of a leap of faith. We haven’t really convinced ourselves that it’s worth it.”

In a multicultural enclave just outside of central Sydney, Australia’s national-level emphasis on Asia-focused education is on full display at West Ryde Public School, where classes playfully mix language training with cultural fluency. In a Korean class, 12-year-old Alex Whitney uses chopsticks to move Lego blocks from one white paper plate to another. “They have a type of food called kim chi,” he says. “It has cabbage in it. And it’s really spicy.”

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