Pacific Century: What's in It for Canada? (Part One)

Article excerpt

Much of my career has been spent working in, analyzing, and otherwise developing and promoting Canada's relations with the countries of the Asia Pacific region. Nineteen ninety-seven has been designated as Canada's Year of Asia Pacific (CYAP), and Canada is chairing Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), a broad consortium working to build trade and investment ties throughout the region. The tale of Canada's trans-Pacific engagement, and what is at stake for this country's place in the world, is worth telling, particularly because directions established and decisions taken this year are likely to prove crucial in determining the nature of the coming chapters.

Canada's past was linked very closely to Europe. Our present prospects have been hitched to the United States and the western hemisphere. I believe, however, that a big piece of our future lies in the Asia-Pacific and that the region will play a key role in maintaining our prosperity, security, and independence in the Pacific century.

In my travels around the country delivering this kind of message, some listeners have found the claim extravagant or overly ambitious. Although from about Winnipeg west audiences are receptive - it's a bit like pushing on an open door - from Ontario east it's a harder sell. To a considerable extent the collective mind of central and eastern Canada - the traditional Canadian establishment - is still mired in the mid-Atlantic. Many Canadians just don't see themselves as part of a Pacific nation.

Of course historical patterns of settlement and cultural ties - to Britain, France, and the United States - go part of the distance towards accounting for this perception. But I still find the situation unsettling. And surprising. A number of Ontario and Quebec based companies, for instance, have been hugely successful on the other side of the Pacific. Canada's largest single commercial engagement in Asia - Bombardier's $1 billion light rapid transit system now under construction in Kuala Lumpur - is responsible for the creation of thousands of high paying, highly skilled jobs in this country.

But that could be the exception. Let's look a little more closely at both the Asia-Pacific region and at Canada's interests. For starters, all of the foreign policy priorities of the government - from the promotion of human rights, democratic development, and good governance to the broad range of more `interests driven' economic considerations - are fully engaged in the region. And that's fine. But barely the beginning:

* every second person in the world is either Chinese or south Asian; these may be the first global tribes, present in more places and in greater numbers but retaining significant ties to their homelands than was ever the case with the Greeks, Armenians, Portuguese, or others;

* both groups are firmly established in Canada and have extensive international ties. Think of using these connections to establish lucrative linkages back to those enormous markets and of using the same networks to advantage in third countries;

* the region leads the world in capital exports (that is, as a source of foreign investment), savings rates (that is, more money is piling up waiting to be spent), and import growth (that is, Asians are buying things - lots of things - made elsewhere);

* by 2000, the Asia-Pacific region will account for 40 per cent of world trade, and 400 million Asians will have personal incomes at or above the averages of the member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development;

* over the next decade the region will generate 60 per cent of global economic expansion; and

* by 2020 the Asia-Pacific will be home to seven of the world's ten largest economies, and China will have overtaken Japan and the United States to become the world's largest national economy.

These developments are dazzling in themselves, but they have a broader implication, namely that the world's economic centre of gravity is shifting. …