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Enough talk about why Asia is important; it's time for action

Emerson, David; Yuen, Pau Woo. The Vancouver Sun; Vancouver, B.C. [Vancouver, B.C] 01 June 2013: D.4.

This is not another opinion piece on the growing importance of Asia in the world, or why Asian economies are vital for Canada's prosperity. It isn't even about the need for Canada to pay more attention to Asia. Canadians pretty much already understand these realities, and virtually every federal politician and provincial leader can recite the
standard lines about Asia's rise.

The question is why Canadians are reluctant to embrace the changes that will come with a more Asia-centric world, how Canada should respond to the rise of Asia, and what concrete strategies are needed to be successful in the region.
The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada's 2013 poll underscores the parado Eighty-four per cent of Canadians said they paid equal or more attention to our relations with Asia in the past year, and Asian economies were ranked higher in terms of importance for Canada's prosperity.

And yet, the same poll saw a fall in support for free trade agreements with Asian countries, stiffer resistance to investment from Asian state-owned enterprises, and continued opposition to teaching about Asia and Asian languages in Canadian schools. Even as more Canadians assert that Asia is vital for the country's economic future, a smaller number agree with the proposition that Canada is part of the Asia-Pacific region (now at a mere 18 per cent).

We cannot have it both ways. If Asia is important for Canada, we must invest in the hard and soft infrastructure that is required to connect with Asia. That means transportation facilities and pipelines, economic policies that encourage two-way trade and investment, greater bilateral flows of people (including students), technology partnerships and collaborations, knowledge and skills that are relevant to Asia's booming economies (especially science and engineering), and literacy on Asia that encompasses history, culture, and languages.

The recent global commodity boom made Asia an easy win for Canada, so far. When the U.S. housing market collapsed in 2008, Chinese demand for lumber stepped in at just the right time to avert disaster for the Canadian wood products industry. In fact, Chinese demand for a wide range of minerals and metals has been a windfall for the resources sector. Where transportation facilities already exist, it has been relatively easy to switch the sale of a homogeneous commodity from one market to another. In this sense, Canada has hitherto benefited from Asia's economic growth with relatively little effort.

But when it comes to shipping a commodity (such as oil and gas) for which transportation infrastructure is not yet in place, or developing and selling a product, technology or service adapted for Asian markets, the challenge is more daunting.

The easy phase in building stronger Canada-Asia relations is over. Regular promotional visits by ministers, commodity exports, inbound container traffic, attracting students/ tourists, and leveraging our intellectual property leadership were all part of the downhill course. The hard part is only just beginning, and most of the effort will be required, not in Asia, but right here in Canada. Even in areas such as technology, innovation and advanced manufacturing, we have entered an irreversible era where China and other Asian countries have become more focused, more committed and in a stronger global competitive position.

We need the political will to embrace policies that foster openness to Asian trade and investment, and national leadership on a balanced energy strategy that will allow for diversified exports. Businesses should treat Asian markets as central to their long-term strategy, and make the investments necessary to thrive in Asia and globally. An excellent example is Sun Life's goal to double earnings from Asia operations by 2015, and the commitment across the company to make this happen. It is also reflected in Teck Resources opening an office in Beijing and locating both its Chief Asia Representative and Chief Economist in China.

There should be more emphasis on teaching about Asia and Asian languages in schools. This is an area where provincial governments, given their responsibility for education, can play a leadership role. Alberta has established an Asia Advisory Council that reports to the Premier, and other provinces are contemplating similar arrangements.

More Canadians should take the opportunity to travel to Asia for leisure, study, and work. A previous APF Canada poll found that only four per cent of Canadians have business or professional activities in Asia. Little wonder that the Asia policy debates in this country - on state-owned enterprises, cyber-security, return migration, product safety, etc. - are driven as much by fear and prejudice as by knowledge and experience.

Future success in Asia will require more effort, but the good news is that Asian economies are evolving in ways that fit the capabilities of Canadian suppliers. The growing emphasis on safety and quality in food and consumer products, desire for a cleaner environment, focus on lifestyle goods in addition to basic needs, and the demand for a wide range of business and professional services will open up many new opportunities for Canadian firms. Bing Thom Architects of Vancouver recently won an international competition to build a Chinese Opera Theatre in Hong Kong - just one example of the massive spending on culture and other "quality of life" projects across Asia.

Next week, 400 delegates to the Canada-Asia 2013 conference in Vancouver will learn about other examples of changing demand in Asia as well as risk factors in the region, and will discuss the strategies that are needed to respond to the rise of Asia.
They have had enough of the "why." So should the rest of Canada.

David Emerson is co-chair of the Canada-Asia 2013 Conference. Yuen Pau Woo is CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, which is organizing the event.
Credit: David Emerson And Yuen Pau Woo; Vancouver Sun