The Poor Cousin?: Canada-ASEAN Relations

Article excerpt

It may surprise Canadians to know that 50 years ago when their government looked across the Pacific, the primary focus of attention was every bit as much on key countries in southeast Asia as it was on other parts of the continent. However, 25 years ago, when the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada was founded, the rapid economic maturing of Japan and South Korea was already beginning to eclipse southeast Asia as a region requiring Ottawa's attention. Since then, the remarkable post-Cold War ascent of the economies of both China and India - and Canada's recent commitments to security in Afghanistan - have continued to push Canada's relations with southeast Asia further and further down the list of its Asian priorities. But for any number of reasons, including the personal bonds and political and economic relations that tie Canada to southeast Asia as well as the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the process of regional community building in east Asia, Canada should not underestimate the importance of working on specific issues so as to maintain a strong and enduring engagement with the region.

A LEGACY OF LINKAGES

Canada does not have a high profile within southeast Asia, nor indeed does ASEAN (whose members are Brunei, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) have a high profile in Canada, but Canada's past relations with southeast Asia have left significant legacies. For example, Canada was the non-communist representative on the International Control Commission set up in 1954 to oversee the Geneva accords that ended France's occupation of Vietnam. Canada's role on the commission lasted until 1973. Significantly, the part the Canadian government played in officially monitoring events in Vietnam during a very turbulent period in its history meant that a generation of External Affairs officers were cycled though the commission. They, therefore, had experience of southeast Asia even if, by most accounts, it was not always a very pleasant one.

More positively, Canada has had a longstanding interest in the development of various societies of the region. As an original member of the 1950 Colombo plan, Canada established a series of development projects in the two Commonwealth countries in southeast Asia - Malaya/Malaysia and Singapore - during the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, Indonesia replaced Malaysia as the main recipient of Canadian development assistance and Canada also began providing assistance for a number of ASEAN regional development projects. Indeed, Canada's current development assistance program allocates around $12 million a year to its southeast Asia regional program. Over the years since then, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) have maintained a strong interest in the ASEAN region, implementing, most recently, significant development cooperation projects in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Overall, Canada has contributed more than $2.8 billion to development cooperation in southeast Asia since 1977.

ASEAN was formed by the Bangkok declaration of 1967 and was essentially a product of the Cold War. Faced in particular with threats from communist subversion, the five original members - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand - all saw the promotion of social and economic development as a way of countering these internal threats. Indeed, the idea of national social and economic resilience was then translated into ASEAN's commitment to fostering resilience in the region. It was in this context that contributions to the region's economic development from all quarters have been seen as especially valuable. In the association's early years, Canada's contributions of development assistance were particularly welcome.

Canada's decision in 1975 to provide developmental assistance for a number of regional ASEAN projects led to important advances on other fronts. …