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Western Canada's trade with Asia must bloom; Outside Alberta, many are still uneasy with power shift to China and India

Yuen, Pau Woo. Edmonton Journal; Edmonton, Alta. [Edmonton, Alta] 10 May 2011: A.14.

The election of a majority Conservative government has set the stage for new directions in Canada's relations with Asia. When asked what the results mean for the country, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Western Canada in particular would benefit because his government will be able to deliver on issues related to energy, transportation and infrastructure. He did not go into specifics, but it is well known that some of the most pressing questions in these three areas have to do with Canada's transpacific ties: pipelines, tanker traffic, port and rail capacity, and inward investment, to name a few.

A new and expanded focus on Asia could not come too soon. Even though international issues were largely absent from the election campaign, the rise of China and India as global powers is on the minds of Canadians. A recent national opinion poll by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada found 66 per cent of respondents believe that the global influence of China will surpass that of the United States in the next decade. About a third of Canadians believe the same for India.

The title of a conference being held at the University of Alberta this week says it all. China and India: Global Power Shift: Opportunities for Canada and Alberta has brought prominent thinkers and practitioners to discuss the implications of the rise of Asia for Alberta and Canada. This is not just another discussion about the growing markets of India and China, but about a global power shift and all that it means for international governance and Canada's place in the world.

Western Canada is at the cutting edge of a new approach to relations with Asia. It is not simply that the Pacific Ocean laps onto the shores of British Columbia and provides Canada with the legitimacy of an Asia Pacific country. It is also that Western Canada has the resources that many Asian countries seek, the opportunities for cash-rich Asian companies to invest in, and the orientation and desire for broader and deeper ties with Asia.

Many Canadians are conflicted about the emergence of China and India as global powers. When asked if China's economic rise was a net benefit to Canada, only 43 per cent agreed, compared to 48 per cent in 2010 and 60 per cent in 2008. A slight majority of Canadians (52 per cent) see India's rise as a net benefit for the country, but this result is also down from a year ago. It is likely that the perception of China as a threat stems largely from a fear of economic competition and the loss of Canadian jobs. Indeed, respondents from Ontario and Quebec, Canada's manufacturing heartland, were the most pessimistic about the economic benefit of China's rise. In fact, all other provinces saw net benefit from the rise of China and India, with Alberta leading the pack with a 12-percentage point margin of opportunity over threat in the case of China.

Even though two-thirds of Canadians believe that China's global influence will surpass that of the U.S. in a decade, there is a curious reluctance to prepare for what amounts to a major power shift. When asked if the education system should incorporate more teaching about Asia and Asian languages, a strong majority of Canadians disagreed! Not surprisingly, the exceptions were British Columbia and Alberta, where Asia awareness tends to be highest in the country. In fact, Edmonton already has the most well-developed Mandarin language instruction programs in the country.

While western Canadian support for stronger ties with Asia is important, the challenge of a more strategic and focused national strategy on Asia will depend on buy-in from all parts of the country. Hence, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada has launched a National Conversation on Asia -a civil society-led initiative to get Canadians thinking and talking about the importance of Asia, and responding in ways that are specific to their business, community, and personal interests.

The National Conversation on Asia will work with private-sector, education and NGO groups across the country to run Asia-focused activities, such as the University of Alberta conference, to identify issues that are of direct interest to these organizations. There will be special focus on young Canadians and extensive use of social media. In addition, a Futures Group on Asia has been formed to help with thought leadership, messaging and strategic advice. The co-chairs are former foreign minister David Emerson and Joseph Caron, Canada's former top diplomat to India and Japan.

The National Conversation on Asia will include task forces on key policy issues that will affect transpacific relations. One of the foremost issues is the Canada-Asia Energy Relationship. While most of the discussions about energy exports to Asia have so far focused on questions of pipelines, First Nations and environmental issues, and tanker traffic, the bigger and more fundamental questions have to do with the nature and trajectory of energy demand in Asia and how Canada fits into that picture. This and other task forces will seek to clarify the policy choices that Canada needs to make if we truly want to be an engaged member of the Asia Pacific region.

And herein lies the root of the problem. Our national opinion poll found that only 26 per cent of Canadians agree that Canada is indeed part of the Asia Pacific region, as opposed to 49 per cent who say Canada is part of the North Atlantic region. If Canada's future is increasingly going to depend on our ties to Asia, we need a radical change in our mental maps. Let the national conversation begin.

Yuen Pau Woo is president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

The two-day University of Alberta conference "C h i n a a n d I n d i a : G l o b a l Power Shift: Opportunities for Canada and Alberta" concludes today.