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‘Unforced errors’ are hurting Canada in Asia, PM’s former top adviser says

Allies left furious by mixed messages and a missed meeting in Vietnam. A trip to China that accomplished nothing. And the debacle of the visit to India. Even Roland Paris is growing frustrated.

The Ottawa academic who served as Justin Trudeau's first foreign policy adviser is sounding a warning: This government must stop dropping the ball in Asia and the Pacific.

"I hope that these experiences serve as a wake-up call," he said Thursday in an interview. "We can't afford to continue these unforced errors, because there are real costs to relationships and to Canada's credibility."

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The stakes are too high for this country's geopolitical and economic future to be messing up as badly as this government has messed up. Mr. Trudeau and the people surrounding him need to take "a serious, hard, honest look at what happened in the past few weeks in order to understand where the problems were," Prof. Paris advised.

Read More: India's tariff hike on chickpeas a 'domestic choice,' says Trudeau

It's long past high time this government got serious about the East.

As director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa, Prof. Paris was highly critical of Stephen Harper's foreign policy, with its suspicious approach to the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. Prof. Paris envisioned a return to Pearsonian principles of engaging with global institutions and encouraging dialogue among conflicting parties.

These principles informed his key role in crafting the foreign policy plank in the Liberals' 2015 election platform. He also helped Mr. Trudeau prepare for the leaders' debates and served on the transition team after the election. As foreign policy adviser, he was in the thick of the whirlwind overseas trips that dominated Mr. Trudeau's early months in office, before returning to the University of Ottawa in 2016.

Prof. Paris has nothing but praise for the Trudeau government's all-fronts approach to protecting the North American free-trade agreement, which is under threat by U.S. President Donald Trump. He is equally enthusiastic about the skillful ratification of the free-trade agreement with the European Union that was negotiated by the Harper government.

But then came Danang, Vietnam, where leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership thought they had a deal to proceed with the trade treaty even though the United States had pulled out – only to learn Canada wasn't ready to sign. Adding insult to insult, Mr. Trudeau stood the other heads of government up at a crucial meeting.

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But Canada eventually signed a reworked TPP, so no permanent harm done. But how to account for Mr. Trudeau's subsequent trip to China? Officials in Beijing were ready to start talks on a trade agreement, only to learn that the Canadians insisted on including environmental, human, labour and gender rights in the talks. Mr. Trudeau left empty-handed.

"There were some miscues in Danang and there were some miscues in Beijing," said Prof. Paris, reinforcing his conviction that "we need a level of diplomacy and seriousness in Asia that reflects the importance of that region for Canada's economic future."

The serial disasters of the India visit and its aftermath simply reinforce that lack of competence and seriousness of purpose.

The problem is that, for most of Canada's history, Asia and the Pacific have been an afterthought. The key priority, for obvious reasons, was the U.S., which is why Foreign Affairs, International Trade and the Centre (the Prime Minister's and Privy Council offices) have sophisticated operations and talented people dedicated to managing the file. Our historic ties to and alliances with Europe also equip us well for continental diplomacy.

But although Canadian governments of all stripes have stressed the importance of deepening relations with Asian and Pacific countries, resources don't match rhetoric.

"If 10 per cent of [the effort devoted to Canada-U.S. relations] were devoted to Asia, we would be twice as far ahead in that region and we probably wouldn't be seeing the kind of mistakes that have occurred," Prof. Paris said.

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So what should happen next? First, a ruthless postmortem, followed by a well-thought-out strategy for future engagement in the region, with the necessary resources deployed to implement that strategy. Top of the list: getting trade talks going with China.

That's how Roland Paris would do it. Just in case anyone in the Centre is listening.

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