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Sun Above a Roof in the Forbidden City, Beijing (John Wang/PHOTODISC)
Sun Above a Roof in the Forbidden City, Beijing (John Wang/PHOTODISC)

Asia: from opportunity to crisis in the eyes of Canadians Add to ...

Canadians are fully aware of the growing clout of China and other fast-growing Asian economies - and they grasp their rapidly increasing importance on the world stage. But the more they see, the more uneasy they are.

More Canadians now regard the economic power of China, India and a handful of other emerging Asian countries as a threat than as an opportunity. When that question was posed in 2008, more than 60 per cent saw Asian expansion as an opportunity. Today, it's below 50 per cent.

Two-thirds of the 2,926 Canadians polled think China will surpass the U.S. in global influence in a decade and one third believe India will do the same. Yet they also see less chance to take advantage of such a sea change, and their attitude to emerging Asia in general has turned several degrees colder, says a new national survey.

Only 44 per cent view China as important to this country's prosperity, compared with 59 per cent in 2008. "This downward trend holds true for all Asian economies," says the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, which commissioned the online poll and revisits the subject about every 18 months. "The result is somewhat surprising because the number of Canadians who think we should be diversifying trade to become less dependent on the U.S. has grown over time."

It's a puzzling dichotomy, considering that Canada's commodity export engine depends increasingly on Asian demand. Also, changing demographics mean that more young Canadians have links to Asia through family, education or business than ever before.

"What goes into the net calculation of Canadians, we don't know. But it would be a combination of economic, lifestyle and values issues that are founded on inadequate information and a general uncertainty about what this all means," said Yuen Pau Woo, president and CEO of the foundation.

"I think it has to do with fear and uncertainty about Canada's place in the world, and the impact of rising powers that are not well understood by Canadians," he said from Montreal, where the foundation was launching a "national conversation" to address the widening divisions exposed by the poll and highlight the importance of adapting to the shift in power toward emerging Asia.

It does not take a survey to underscore Canadian worries about China, analysts say.

"It is understandable that people feel uneasy about the rise of China in general and have concerns about its economic expansion around the world," said Wenran Jiang, who holds a research chair at the University of Alberta's China Institute. "After all, China is not a democracy but an emerging superpower that has the potential to challenge U.S. dominance. But such fear … cannot be justified against the reality."

Mr. Jiang noted, for example, that China's investment in Canada pales in comparison to its acquisition binge in some other parts of the world. In Canada, China has mainly pursued minority stakes in energy and resource projects, supplying cash that has helped sustain their development - and create jobs - in the wake of the financial crisis.

But the simple fact is that most countries turn inward in response to hard economic times. And in Canada, manufacturing and other woes can be laid partly at the feet of the Chinese and their deliberately undervalued currency. China's worsening human rights record may also be a factor, although the survey revealed a split among Canadians on the issue.

"Look no further than hockey sticks," said Arthur Heinmaa, managing partner with Toron Investment Management in Toronto, who keeps a close watch on global market developments. He was referring to the recent decision by iconic Quebec stick maker Sher-Wood Hockey Inc. to transfer its remaining production to China, with the loss of about 40 jobs.

"Slowly, friends and neighbours are losing jobs. both because of the high Canadian dollar and Chinese competition," Mr. Heinmaa said, adding that trade with China is critical - in theory. "It's great in the abstract. But then it hits home [through job losses] And that's what it comes down to."

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