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jeffrey simpson

Okay, it's an admittedly corny metaphor, but think of Prime Minister Stephen Harper standing on the Pacific coast of Canada, casting fishing lines toward Asia.

Each line is trying to land a trade deal, and there are six lines in Mr. Harper's hands. If he could land one or two deals, he'd be doing well. But he could also get all the lines tangled and wind up with nothing.

The Prime Minister, as part of his understandable (if belated) desire to do deals with Asia, is fishing for arrangements with India, South Korea, Thailand, Japan and a collection of countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And he might throw a line in the direction of the biggest fish of all, one that appears willing to bite: China.

One problem is, there doesn't appear to be a strategy. Which is the most important deal? And how would these trade deals fit into an overall Canadian approach to Asia?

It's easy, to the point of cliché, to say that Canada needs an "Asian strategy," a point repeated at this week's conference of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. But what would that look like? Apart from a big territory on the world map, there's no such thing as "Asia," if by that we mean some sense of common purpose.

The Chinese and Japanese don't trust each other. The South Koreans are antsy about the Japanese. Other Asian countries resent China's pushiness. The Vietnamese and Chinese don't like each other. Indians and Chinese have a grossly underdeveloped relationship, and remember their war against each other – as all countries do with Japan.

The lines that Mr. Harper has thrown into the water have to navigate around these eddies and currents. And there's no guarantee that any of the lines will catch anything.

The South Korean trade deal is stuck on bottom largely because the Canadian auto industry doesn't want it. As a result, while Ottawa stalled, Washington negotiated a deal with Seoul, which, in turn, reduced South Korea's interest in anything with Canada.

Something with India is in the early stages of negotiations (Mr. Harper is going there again in November), but if anything happens, it will take a long time. The Indians really don't consider Canada much of a priority – few Asian countries do. Thailand, worthy as it is, is the smallest fish on offer.

As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Canada lobbied to the point of abasement to get belated entry because the Americans, at the end of the day, helped to invite us in. The Americans seem keen on the TPP for trade reasons, and also for obvious geopolitical ones – as a way of enticing Asia-Pacific countries into a deal without China, or one where the ground rules would be set before China entered.

The other day, China's ambassador to Canada said his country was ready for a free-trade deal with Canada. Clever man, the ambassador. He offered the prize of the Chinese market, in part, as a counterpoint to the TPP.

Predictably, the Harper government hesitated, not just because it needs to figure out an Asian strategy, or at least set some priorities, but because elements of the Conservative caucus are queasy about China. Supporters of Free Tibet and Taiwan lurk in the caucus, as do those who like to wag fingers at China over human rights.

Then there are those Chinese state-owned behemoths eyeing Canadian resource companies, Calgary-based Nexen Inc. being the first but surely not the last. The government hasn't yet figured out how to handle the Nexen takeover, let alone what might be coming next.

To extend the metaphor, Mr. Harper has his China line ready to cast. He just hasn't figured out whether or when to throw it.

Amid all this, there's a vexing problem: The government hasn't got enough civil servants to handle all these negotiations. That's why the Department of Foreign Affairs is asking for dozens more people. Without more personnel, the government's Asian agenda (such as it is) can't move forward – at the very moment when spending cuts are hammering staff, embassies and expenses.

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