After a few years of frosty relations with China, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has woken up to the importance of courting the world's largest exporter, and the region more generally. Last month, before the G8/G20 summits began, he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and on the conference's final day, received Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and signed a nuclear co-operation agreement.
However, Canadians more broadly still seem indifferent to the great economic potential of Asia.
While 60 per cent of Canadians believe the influence of China on the world stage will surpass that of the U.S. in the next decade, only 29 per cent see Canada as part of the Asia-Pacific region. That's a 10-point decrease in the past four years, according to a survey by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
There is an inherent contradiction in this reluctance to foster a deeper trade and cultural relationship with an increasingly dynamic region. Business leaders in Canada have not made Asia a priority. Less than 1 per cent of imports into Asia originate here, and Canada has not concluded a single free-trade agreement anywhere in Asia. If this trend continues, it could undermine Canada's economy. It is especially puzzling given the deep immigration links that already tie Canada to India and China.
A new report by the Canadian International Council offers a set of prescriptions about how to harness the potential of the world's fastest-growing market. Many of the ideas are worth considering.
"We suffer from an attitude problem. Canada... must be consistent and unrelenting in our attention to Asia," says the report, "Open Canada: A global positioning strategy."
Canada is home to 1.3 million Chinese-Canadians and more than one million Indo-Canadians. More than half a million Canadians live and work in Asia.
The report calls on Canada to harness these human connections, and build greater trade and educational links. Canadian universities could look at the example of Branksome Hall, an elite Toronto private girl's school, which recently opened a campus in Korea. There is a growing market in China and India for Canada's expertise in educational services, and an opportunity for Canada to promote itself as a destination for international students.
Canada could also negotiate a labour-mobility agreement with China. China currently does not allow dual citizenship, though the government has shown a willingness to consider the idea on a bilateral basis. Such an agreement would facilitate the freer movement of knowledge and people.
"China and India realize it's a good thing to have their citizens plugged into international networks," says Yuen Pau Woo, CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation, and a member of the report's advisory panel.
Canada cannot afford to be complacent. This doesn't mean it should turn its back on its largest trading partner, the U.S., or sever traditional ties to Europe. But by embracing its Asia-Pacific identity, Canada can broaden its opportunities.