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Polls suggests Canadians appear less interested in building relations with East

Tourists from China check out the totem poles in Vancouver's Stanley Park on Thursday.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

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.

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"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.

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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."

There are also Hindi classes. But it's in the elementary school's Mandarin class – where young kids trace Chinese characters and learn the language's four basic tones – that the reasoning behind Australia's expansion of language programs becomes more clear.

"When you grow up, you might be doing business with another country and they might not understand English, so you might communicate with Mandarin or Korean" says Roychelle Manso, a 10-year-old student at West Ryde.

Like other young Australians in her class, the global citizen says she's already visited the nearby metropolises of Southeast Asia – such as Singapore and Hong Kong – with her parents, and her comments hint that she can already envision a future for Australia in which it is crucial to know the language and culture of its Asian neighbours. She and other students now trade e-mails with pen pals at Jianping Experimental Primary School, their sister school in Shanghai.

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"We're losing our manufacturing industry," says Kim Lloyd Jones, the school's principal, as students drift out to recess in floppy blue Outback hats to protect them from Australia's harsh summer sun. "Our kids are going to need the skills to work with people in Asia."

It was for this reason – as well as the obvious fact the country is lodged firmly in the Asia-Pacific region, and has little choice in the matter – that then-prime minister Julia Gillard and Secretary of the Treasury Ken Henry produced an influential white paper called "Australia in the Asian Century" in 2012. It laid out a national strategy that would enable Australia – a country that is remarkably similar to Canada, in terms of its resource boom and declining industrial base – to deal with Asia's rise and shifting global dynamics.

The paper notes Asia is already the most populous region and the largest producer of goods, but will soon also be the largest consumer of goods – and home to most of the world's middle class. Australia's resource producers, like Canada's, have already seen huge growth over the past few decades from Asian customers, but the paper points out that opportunities will spread as populations in Asia grow and become wealthier. "They are demanding a diverse range of goods and services, from health and aged care to education to household goods, and tourism, banking and financial services, as well as high-quality food products."

Ms. Jones said her multicultural school already had some Asian language teaching – like in parts of Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton, Asian language teaching is often linked to localized Asian immigration and parents' requests – but she notes that that the school's language programs greatly expanded in the wake of the white paper.

Australia – whose former Labour prime minister, Kevin Rudd, spoke fluent Mandarin and helped kickstart Asian language teaching in Australia – has since switched governments, electing the conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has pledged to cut back spending and has focused instead on curtailing immigration from Southeast Asia – particularly nearby Indonesia. The Asian Century website, hosting the white paper and other information, has been archived. And Julie Bishop, the new foreign minister, has criticized the "Asian Century" white paper as a sort of back-patting for the previous government's existing policies, and defended Mr. Abbott's axing of the Australia Network, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation initiative that targeted audiences across 45 Asia-Pacific countries.

But in Australia – where education falls under the national government, unlike in Canada where it is a provincial jurisdiction – the country still has a national Asia Education Foundation dedicated to promoting "Asia literacy" for Australians, from their kindergarten equivalent to the end of high school. The foundation also supports a "Global Perspective" website with teacher resources, and has a coherent, specific definition of Asia literacy that spans from Japanese poetry to Malaysia's rainforests.

Mr. Henry, who helped draft the white paper, says Australians broadly understood the importance of Asia's rise, but added that his government still needed to give the population a "jolt."

"There was a sense within government that we'd never really communicated with the Australian population what would be required of them in order that they could make the most of the opportunities this century presents," Mr. Henry says.

"My sense is that Canada has traditionally looked to the United States in the way that we have traditionally looked to Asia. … I guess the question for Canada is whether its future is going to continue to be to the south, or whether its future is going to be on the other side of the Pacific."

Western Canada needs little incentive to trade with Asia. The Prairies, Alberta and B.C. produce far more wheat, lentils, canola, oil sands crude, coal and lumber than Canada could ever consume – and the huge populations of India, China and other Asian nations are natural customers. But even B.C., the most eastward-facing province, is facing resistence on multiple fronts as it tries to mobilize investment for the trans-Pacific export of liquefied natural gas. At the same time, Alberta is facing intense opposition from First Nations groups as Enbridge pushes its Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry crude oil through B.C. to the coast to export it to Asia.

And while Saskatchewan ships 20 per cent of its goods to Asia, Ontario – Canada's hard-hit manufacturing heartland – sends less than 7 per cent of its exports to Asia.

Roughly 75 per cent of Canada's exports naturally flow south to the U.S., the world's biggest economy, where a long border, common language and similar culture make doing business easy. But Asian demand has picked up dramatically in recent years as the middle class grows in countries such as Indonesia and China. It's not always positive for everyone: Foreign buyers willing to overpay for local products have raised prices in Vancouver for real estate, as well as prices for freshly caught spot prawns, among other things.

But the global economy continues to evolve rapidly. The World Bank now suggests China's economy may surpass that of the U.S. by the end of the year.

These global shifts require specific action from businesses, governments and academic institutions, says Mr. Mulroney, who joined the University of Toronto after his career in the foreign service. Canada, he says, can count some successes, such as Edmonton's focus on Asian-language teaching, but many such efforts are ad hoc – the result of local parents' interest, which often comes from preserving their cultural heritage.

Mr. Mulroney, as he travelled the country for an Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada study on Asia competency, said students told him Canadian businesses didn't seem to value their efforts to spend time studying in Asia. It is not just Australia that beats out Canada. He says the country also compares unfavourably to major economies such as France and Germany, which also have national level policies, and also to the U.S., where President Barack Obama emphasized a 100,000 Strong China initiative – which aims to send that many American students to study in China. These bold policies can change minds and mobilize peoples' ambitions, he says.

"I think we are unprepared," Mr. Mulroney says. "What is discouraging, when you look at the polling, Canadians still aren't convinced that we should be carving out time in the school day for Asian languages... What I do worry about is that there is a bit of geographic drift in Canada, where, not surprisingly, The West Coast gets it and acts on it. But it tends to ooze out as you drift east. …We have yet to convince ourselves that this is our future."

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