Skip to main content

A hot-air balloon flies over a container port in Qingdao in east China’s Shandong province on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, during a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders.The Associated Press

Last week, a Globe article outlined the challenges that Canada faces in establishing itself as a trading power in the Asian region.

As I read along, I suddenly thought of a scene from the movie Shrek, where the donkey character jumps in and out of view, shouting: "Oh, oh, pick me . . . oh, pick me . . . oh me . . . me, me, meeeee (donkey falls out of view)".

Ottawa's recent efforts to secure Canada a seat at the East Asia Summit (EAS) – which consists of the leaders of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) + 8 (Japan, China, Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, United States and Russia), should not be belittled.

But it's quite simply a case of too little too late. In business terms, Canada didn't close the deal and will not have a seat at Asia-Pacific's new power forum – a forum that was established in Malaysia in 2005 to deal with Asia's political, economic, and strategic issues. Put another way, we did not give ASEAN + 8 enough reasons to say yes.

On May 31, 2011, an article by Amitav Acharya of the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada began with the following:

"It is bad enough that Canada is absent in Asia. But what's worse is that nobody in Asia seems to care. In a recent op-ed, Joseph Caron (Canada's former ambassador to China and Japan and former High Commissioner to India) and David Emerson (former Canadian Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister) wrote: 'Canada remains on the fringes of [Asia's] remarkable transformation, whether diplomatic engagement, trade, foreign investment or educational or cultural exchanges. We risk being left behind.'"

There is no risk – we are being left behind.

The ability to realize international business (i.e. export sales and direct investment initiatives) or international policy (i.e. trade agreements or a seat at the EAS forum) success requires considerable time, effort, and resources (human and financial). While Canadian industry and the Canadian (and provincial) governments may desire to develop new markets and trade routes, that doesn't mean it will happen.

For any Canadian enterprise that is, or has aspirations of doing business in East and Southeast Asia, this decision should be of real concern to you.

In the Globe article, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of ASEAN, said: "Canada has goodwill in the region, stemming in part from the aid efforts of the Canadian International Development Agency in the 1970s and 1980s, but it hasn't had the sustained presence since to really build on it . . . The name is there. But you don't see the sustained effort of trying to project it out."

Now, I wouldn't go as far as Mr. Acharya of the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada in saying that "nobody in Asia seems to care" (about Canada's absence in the region), but when your prospective "client" has to go back to the 1970s and 1980s to find concrete examples of what Canada has done well in Southeast Asia, you know you're in trouble.

If Canada is to become a nation of traders, not just a trading nation – the central theme in my blog – then we (i.e. government and industry) really must learn to compete in the global economy.

At both the company and country levels, we face competition from around world with similar objectives. Unless we come to the table (again, at both the industry and government levels) with a long term and focused game plan, and one that is backed up with relentless effort, we will not realize the commercial or trade policy objectives that we desire.

William Polushin is Founding Director of the Program for International Competitiveness at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University; Vice President, Global Expansion and Strategy at Vortex Aquatic Structures International; and President of AMAXIS, an international business and operational development services firm.