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Canadian apathy puts trade at risk in Southeast Asia: report

Workers at a garment factory in Hanoi


Canada has largely ignored relations with Southeast Asia over the past decade and is now at risk of being shut out of key trading pacts and institutions in the increasingly important region, according to a highly critical report to be released Wednesday.

Once an active force in countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, "Canada no longer appears on radar screens as an attentive and relevant participant in regional affairs," says the report from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a Vancouver-based think tank.

Without proper engagement in Southeast Asia, Canada risks being excluded from the East Asia Summit (EAS), which was established in 2005 and now includes 16 members, with the United States and Russia expected to accept an invitation to join soon.

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The EAS "is likely the table around which the parameters of regional economic and political architectures will be determined," argues the report, written by Brian Job, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia and a senior fellow of the foundation.

With a market base of 620 million people and a combined annual GDP of $1.5-trillion (U.S.), Southeast Asia is emerging as an increasingly powerful region, with a rising middle-class consumer group and strong economic growth despite the global financial crisis. Countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines are seeing an increase in manufacturing activity as rising wages in China prompt companies to seek out cheaper sources of labour.

The report says Canada has failed to sign free-trade agreements with any countries in the booming economic region. Canada has also been left out of the early rounds of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a coalition of Asia Pacific countries looking to establish a broader free-trade area.

The report also notes that Canada has consistently failed to show up at meetings of regional defence ministers, dubbed the Shangri-la Dialogue; only once in the past nine years has Canada's minister of defence joined his counterparts for what has become the area's most prominent security forum.

"Southeast Asia has slipped off the map of Canadian foreign policy over the last decade," the report says.

In addition to economic interests, Southeast Asia also represents a critical region for international security. Indonesia, for example, has the largest Muslim population in the world. "We have a very strong interest in seeing that Indonesia sustains itself as a moderate democracy," Mr. Job said in an interview.

Canada's lack of engagement with Southeast Asia stands in sharp contrast to the actions of the United States which, under President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has become a vocal participant in the region.

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The report does note that, after years of disengagement, Canada took a small step toward rejoining high-level discussions in Southeast Asia. On July 24, Canada acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation (TAC), which affirms a commitment to regional peace and stability.

The treaty represents a "ticket" for engagement in the expanding network of regional institutions centred around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the report contends. However, it says that Canada is a latecomer in gaining the ticket, as it was the last member of the ASEAN Regional Forum to join. Since the treaty was opened to non-Southeast Asian states in 2003, some 29 states in the region and beyond have signed, including China, India and the U.S.

"Already viewed by regional players as disinterested and minimally committed, if we find ourselves relegated to observer status in the next generation of Asia Pacific institutions, the promotion of Canadian interests and values will have little, if any, chance of success," the report concludes.

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