Len Edwards is a former Canadian Ambassador to South Korea and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. He currently co-chairs the non-governmental Canada-Korea Forum, and is a Distinguished Fellow at both the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
The state visit to Canada by President Park Geun-hye on Sept. 20-22 inaugurates a major new chapter in Canada's 50 year relationship with South Korea, headlined by the signature of the Canada-Korea free-trade agreement completed earlier this year.
While the CKFTA's direct economic benefits will be significant, and properly celebrated by both governments, its indirect impact should not be overlooked, politically re-energizing interest and activity in other areas of relations and underpinning a stronger strategic partnership between two of the world's important second-tier powers.
As always, however, these outcomes will depend on the effort that governments, businesses and others put into pursuing the opportunities and leveraging the positive mood and momentum that has been created.
A year ago, this cheery outcome was highly uncertain. Negotiations had effectively ground to a halt, caught up in the tough issues still to be resolved on both sides, and amid signs that South Korea had lost interest following earlier hesitations by Ottawa. But after some frank talk as regards the economic and broader consequences of failure, negotiations were resumed and concluded in relatively short order.
This free-trade agreement (FTA) establishes a 21st-century framework for our economic and trade partnership, replacing the increasingly out-dated GATT/WTO-focused structure on which our traditional trading relationship has been based – once dynamic and growing, but for the past decade losing momentum and attention on both sides.
For example, our agricultural, seafood and forestry sectors will be among the biggest Canadian "winners," eventually catching up with whatever preferential advantages our U.S. friends have enjoyed since their FTA with Seoul came into effect in March, 2012.
The CKFTA gives Canadian manufacturers and service industries not only new opportunities in South Korea, but also a means of using South Korean partners and operations as a gateway to sales, service and technology opportunities in the Asian components of today's dynamic global value chains.
The investment provisions give businesses greater certainty and protection for their investments, something of value to sometimes reluctant potential Canadian investors in South Korea, and to South Korean companies who remain especially active in Canada's energy sector.
As Canada's first major FTA in the Asian region, the CKFTA has much broader political significance. It signals we are ready for further "big deals" in Asia and the tough decisions that accompany them. As Ottawa concludes its CETA with Europe, the CKFTA tells Asians that Canada is also ready to tie its economic future to the their region, and provide Asians with another link to the European marketplace. It is a sign of commitment.
Canadian business leaders have, with the exception of some players in the automotive sector, pressed the Harper government to complete the Canada-Korea deal. It will now be up to business to press ahead with the advantages they have been given, and quickly. The South Korean side will certainly be moving promptly to secure their new gains.
While the attention accompanying Ms. Park's visit will focus on the FTA, both governments should also seize the opportunity to translate this new momentum into initiatives in other areas.
Here are three suggestions:
First, elevate our assessments and coordination on global economic issues.
South Korea and Canada now rank as "equals" in what might be called the second tier of the globe's elite economies. A G20 and OECD member, South Korea possesses the 14th largest economy in the world according to 2012 World Bank statistics. Canada is in 11th position. South Korea has surpassed us as the 7th largest exporter and 10th largest importer. We are in 12th position in both areas. Korea has 13 companies on the 2012 Fortune 500 list, compared to Canada's 11.
Instead of limiting our discussions with South Korea to ad hoc occasions on the margins of G20, IMF/World Bank meetings and other events, we could acknowledge our shared status and stake in the global economic order and initiate an annual bilateral strategic dialogue on the global economy among key ministers and officials, but also involving economists, businesspersons and practitioners.
Second, improve co-ordination on matters of regional and global security.
Well-known developments in the Asia Pacific region are creating new geopolitical and inter-state tensions that undermine security and threaten our shared economic objectives. South Korea has always been a key player, but Ms. Park's policies reflect a sophisticated understanding of the forces at work in Northeast Asia and beyond. More structured interchanges on these matters, plus global security issues, would be greatly facilitated by the establishment of a Canada/Korea "2x2" foreign and defence ministers' forum. Australia shares such a forum with South Korea; so should we.
Third, look to niche bilateral initiatives that have value to both sides, while helping promote linked economic and security interests.
For example, Canada recently welcomed South Korea into the Arctic Council as an observer. This could now be followed by a Canada-Korea initiative to work bilaterally on arctic issues of common interest. As users of nuclear power for electricity generation (including continuing shared experiences with the CANDU reactor), and as marketers of nuclear reactors and equipment abroad, we could launch joint work in the pressing area of nuclear safety.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Park meet on Sept. 22 to sign the FTA, there will be considerable satisfaction at accomplishing this signal achievement. It would be a major mistake and opportunity lost if do not also exploit the political momentum it creates for leveraging additional benefits in other areas and opening a new and rich phase in South Korea-Canada relations.