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international relations

Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN secretary-general, says Canada has room to expand ties with the 10-nation Asian organization.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Canada will not get a seat for years at the East Asia Summit, the Pacific's new power forum, says the leader of the region's key political bloc, but he insists Ottawa has other avenues to expand trade and ties.

The Harper government has asked to join the East Asia Summit, which includes major Asian nations as well as others such as Russia, the United States and Australia. While Canada's application has not yet been made public, it is expected in coming days, a source told The Globe and Mail. But Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, says it will take years before the summit door opens again.

"It's not absolutely closed, but it's a moratorium," Mr. Pitsuwan said. "But that doesn't preclude Canada's active engagement in the region – through the existing mechanisms that we've already established."

Mr. Pitsuwan's message is no small matter to Canada and its attempts to expand trade and relations with the rapidly growing markets of East and Southeast Asia. The new wiring for diplomacy and trade in the region is being installed now, quickly, and many of the organizations and summits are being built on those of the 10-member ASEAN. Canada has ties to ASEAN, and has room to expand them, Mr. Pitsuwan said.

Canada has goodwill in the region, stemming in part from the aid efforts of the Canadian International Development Agency in the 1970s and 1980s, he said. But it hasn't had the sustained presence since to really build on it.

"The goodwill is there. The name is there. But you don't see the sustained effort of trying to project it out," Mr. Pitsuwan said in an interview with The Globe and Mail in Parliament's Centre Block. "[Canada] is appreciated. But it's not an active engagement that projects that quality out."

That's an assessment that should concern, but not surprise, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. The PM has placed high political priority on efforts to expand ties, and trade, with Asia. But for most of the past decade, relations with Southeast Asia were neglected – as ASEAN was signing trade deals with China, India, Australia and others.

The East Asia Summit was created with such regional players as Japan and Australia. Last year, the United States and Russia were invited in – and then the door closed. Canada has been busy trying to re-engage for the past year, with visits, talks and promises of greater involvement in the region.

"Certainly it's registered with our people, our leadership, that Canada has made an effort to register its presence and its desire to be part of the various [diplomatic] architectures in the region," Mr. Pitsuwan said.

There is ample incentive for Ottawa to expand trade with the fast-growing region. One in 11 people in the world lives in the ASEAN nations – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

But in Asia, expanding trade ties is also likely to mean building closer links in other areas – the reason Mr. Pitsuwan was in Ottawa meeting not only with Trade Minister Ed Fast and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, but also Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

The Harper government has also asked to join the so-called "ASEAN-plus" meetings of Pacific defence ministers, because that is developing into a regional security forum – and Ottawa wants to be part of the Pacific club. Mr. Pitsuwan said Canada's application is "certainly active" – and many expect it to come soon.

Canada's role in Southeast Asian security matters is unlikely to be in the "hardware" of deployed ships and planes, but more in the "software" of providing expertise to combat terrorism, deal with disasters, or in cyber-security, he said.

It is a region where territorial disputes are causing sharp tensions. Beyond the current flare-up of a dispute between China and Japan over a string of islands, there are conflicting claims over stretches of the South China Sea between Beijing and four ASEAN nations – some of which, like the Philippines, look to the United States as a protector.

That South China Sea dispute led to an unprecedented stalemate at the ASEAN summit in July, when the 10 nations could not even agree on a communiqué – as Cambodia, close to China, blocked a call for a multilateral code of conduct for the South China Sea. ASEAN, used to dealing by consensus among its members, has found itself "less than prepared" when divided by the rivalries of outside powers, Mr. Pitsuwan conceded.