Hugh Stephens is a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and vice-chair of the Canadian Committee on Pacific Economic Co-operation.
An interesting meeting took place in Toronto this month: ABAC came to town.
While it barely registers on the radar of most Canadian businesses, the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Business Advisory Council is fast becoming one of the premier business councils in the Asia Pacific region.
APEC itself is made up of 21 countries and represents 2.8 billion people, 57 per cent of the world's GDP and 47 per cent of world trade. Between 1989 and 2013, its total trade in goods and services increased seven-fold, to $22-trillion. In short, a dynamic region that Canada's business community cannot afford to ignore.
Twenty years ago, APEC leaders appointed high-level business executives from each member economy – including Canada – to band together to provide practical policy advice on regional business priorities. This new ABAC forum was tasked with integrating the region through recommendations for improved trade and investment. Many of these recommendations are backed up by studies or model guidelines, all of which are designed to remove unnecessary impediments to the smooth flow of business.
Canada's own ABAC executive consists of three members of the business community, appointed by the Prime Minister. Currently, these members are Philip Leong, director at ScotiaMcLeod in Toronto; Deborah Close, president of production services at Calgary-based environmental and energy services company Tervita Corp.; and Suzanne Benoît, president of Aéro Montreal, Quebec's aerospace cluster.
At the June 2 "Engaging Asia" meeting with Canada's ABAC executive, hosted by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a roundtable of Canadian business executives heard from representatives of the ABAC organizations of New Zealand, the U.S., Japan and the Philippines. The topics were as diverse as regional trade initiatives (such as the current Trans-Pacific Partnership talks), labour mobility and management, the opportunities for Canadian SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and Canada's agri-food sector, public-private partnerships (PPPs) and the importance generally of APEC for Canadian business.
They were also told that Asia's infrastructure needs as much as $1.1-trillion in investment over the next decade. And that for Canadian companies to take advantage of these opportunities, better access to global supply chains is required.
Our G7 and traditional NAFTA relationships won't connect Canada with this opportunity. We need new institutions for a new world driven by Asian growth. Which is where our seat at the ABAC table comes in, allowing the Canadian business community to leverage its strengths to influence and advance business issues that matter to Canadians in the Asia Pacific region.
Canadian businesses have a golden opportunity here to affect policy discussions that are reshaping how business is done in the region. Despite important contributions, Canada's understated engagement style has hampered it from truly taking advantage of the opportunities provided by ABAC to forge deeper commercial relations with Asian partners. More effort and support from the Canadian business community in terms of policy input, business engagement and relationship-building is needed to effectively leverage these opportunities.
ABAC is unique, as its members have direct access to presidents and prime ministers without any accompanying panoply of officials. And it is the primary sounding board on critical policy decisions impacting business in the region.
Canadian businesses can't wait for government to answer the call.