Canada and Asia Pacific's Track-Two Diplomacy

By Evans, Paul | International Journal, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Canada and Asia Pacific's Track-Two Diplomacy

Evans, Paul, International Journal

Viewed in broad sweep, the most dramatic change in eastern Asia in the past 25 years may be the associational revolution that has accompanied the region's spectacular economic growth and integration. Asian and transPacific relations have been transformed less by changes in regime type and diplomatic initiatives, though there certainly have been examples of both, than by the ways that people and organizations have connected to each other across national boundaries. All this in an Asian neighbourhood in which the principles of sovereignty and non-interference reign supreme, regional institutions are comparatively weak, and divided states and Cold War tensions remain unresolved.

The frame of "Asia Pacific" and its multiple variants was invented in the mid-1980s, largely as a way of capturing the trans-Pacific interest in the growing markets of Asia and finding a way to create some kind of community or commonality as an overlay on economic transactions. An act of parliament created the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada in 1984. In its aspirations, achievements, and failures, it has embodied the Canadian attempt to cement the Canadian place in a trans- Pacific world in the making.

Commercial and economic issues have been the principal focus of the foundation's activities from the outset, even as its architects and some of its leaders held to a much broader conception that also highlighted political, security, cultural, and educational domains. The nurturing of bilateral political relations and the commitment to building multilateral institutions for Ottawa has been mainly a complement to economic objectives. The Canadian economy is now much more closely integrated into Asia as Canadian consumers, producers, and citizens see in their daily lives.

Despite the economic focus and the absolute growth in the levels of trade, in relative terms Canada's significance in Asia continues to slide. Trade dependence on the US is only slightly reduced and the capacity for Canadian businesses to become integral parts of the global value and supply chains centred in Asia remain comparatively weak.

The paradox of these 25 years is that Canadian policymakers have aimed at commerce while the real fields of Canadian success often have been elsewhere. Chief among these have been the enormous human flows in immigration from Asia to Canada, the presence of Canadians in Asia, travel and tourism, and student recruitment. Historians may have difficulty pinpointing a major economic triumph but little problem finding a vast array of people-to-people contacts and Canadian initiatives in building the sinews of international society within Asia and across the Pacific.

In the billiard-ball world of state-to-state relations in the Asia Pacific, Canada has at most been an intermittent and second-tier player. It has scored occasional successes in intergovernmental institutions like Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and in bilateral relations, especially with China, Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN under Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments and with India under the current Conservative government.

The unsung hero has been the Canadian role in the nongovernmental and semi-governmental arenas that have blossomed in the Asia-Pacific era. In a context of rapid economic and social change in east and southeast Asia, the sprouts of multilateralism have taken root. Canada's involvement has both made a lasting contribution in Asia and coincided with the way that foreign policy is made and implemented at home.

The fact that the Harper government is comparatively less interested in Asia Pacific than its predecessors and has virtually shut down the interactive processes inside Canada and with Asian partners does not diminish the record of accomplishment nor dim its future prospects.


The idea of "second track" or "track-two" diplomacy crept into the lexicon of international relations in the early 1980's. …

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