Rarity boosts value, real and perceived, and so it was with Stephen Harper's visit to Thailand last week. The previous state visit by a standing Canadian prime minister happened in 1997, when Jean Chrétien's charm machine rolled through Bangkok in a reportedly "high-profile" tour.
Local expectations were indeed high for Mr. Harper's visit and it appears he did most things right, from the cheesy grins to the photo ops. Except one, and it was a biggie. The business and trade crowd, of both the Canadian and Thai variety, complained that they were treated as tour afterthoughts. Given that the Canadian government keeps banging on about deepening economic ties with the high-growth Asian economies, they had the right to moan.
Here's part of the letter that appeared in The Globe and Mail this week from James Best, the Canadian who is the communications director for public relations firm Aziam Burson-Marsteller in Bangkok: "I expected that during Stephen Harper's three-day visit last week, he and his mission would try to boost Canada Inc. here, our brand, and meet with local businessmen and investors, both Canadian and Thai. But the PM's advance team would not permit scheduling any meetings with him. There were no events, formal or otherwise, where members of the Canadian community here could meet the PM and exchange ideas on how Canada can raise its profile in this dynamic country."
Peter van Haren, president in Bangkok of the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce, had a similar view. "Our members were disappointed that he had so little time for the local business community," he said, adding that any high-powered U.S. political delegation would go out of its way to schmooze the business talent.
To be fair, Mr. Harper, who was accompanied by ministers John Baird and Ed Fast, did hold a "roundtable" with a few CEOs, one of whom was Anon Siriaengtaksin of PTT, the Thai national energy company that made a $2.3-billion investment in the Alberta oil sands in 2010. But the group was small and the meeting lasted only 45 minutes, Mr. van Haren said. The tour included a bigger business reception, which Mr. Harper did not attend.
The focus of the Asian tour's Thai leg (which was actually two days, not three) was more about celebrating 50 years of official Thai-Canadian relations and fighting human trafficking, terrorism and transnational crimes. In Bangkok, Mr. Harper announced that Canada will spend $12-million in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, to help police officers identify human trafficking operations (this has been a concern of Canada since 2010, when a ship carrying almost 500 Tamil asylum seekers landed in British Columbia). While the business crowd was fuming about shabby access to Mr. Harper, the Prime Minister found time to visit a Thai police division and a boxing gymnasium.
In Ottawa, the Prime Minister's Office points out that Mr. Harper launched "exploratory" talks toward a Canada-Thailand free-trade agreement. Who cares? His government has completed free-trade talks with nine countries, and good for him. But none of them is in Asia, which is the high-growth part of the planet. Negotiations with Singapore began in 2001 under a previous government and have gone precisely nowhere. The United States, meanwhile, has just snagged a free-trade deal with South Korea.
Thailand in particular and Southeast Asia in general are regions that Canada should be courting with verve and energy. It's all fine to have free-trade agreements elsewhere, including the one plodding ahead with the European Union, but Asia is action central. (Canada doesn't even have a permanent ambassador in Thailand – the position is vacant.)
Note that on Friday, Norway's $610-billion (U.S.) sovereign wealth fund, Europe's biggest, announced it will greatly reduce its exposure to investments in Europe, most of which is in recession, so it can build up in Asia-Pacific. The goal is to drop the European portfolio to 41 per cent from 54 per cent, and boost Asia-Pacific to 19 per cent from 11 per cent.
The absence of a Canadian free-trade deal with Thailand, which could take a decade to negotiate, doesn't mean the two countries can't boost trade and investment, which is surprisingly thin given the relatively large size and growth potential of the two economies. Even though Thailand is Canada's largest trade partner in the 10-country ASEAN group (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), bilateral trade last year was a mere $3.5-billion (Canadian).
The two countries have a lot to offer to one another. Canada has energy technology, especially of the clean-tech variety, which Thailand covets. Thailand is a manufacturing and export powerhouse that is moving up the value chain (auto making has emerged as big industry).
But the signal given by Mr. Harper's team last week was that Canada doesn't much care about ramping up trade and investment between the two countries. This is a pity. Traditionally, leaders of government are seen as any Western country's chief ambassador and salesman. Mr. Harper could do with a few less photo ops and a few more "sell Canada" sessions. The man does, after all, stress his pro-market, pro-business stance.