Canada's Place as Asia Moves into Driver's Seat of Global Governance

Yuen Pau Woo
President and CEO, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada


Prime Minister Harper and three of his senior cabinet ministers spent much of the last week at two major international gatherings in Asia. The Seoul G20 meeting on 11-12 November was followed by the annual APEC Leaders’ Summit in Yokohama. The close proximity of these two meetings and their overlapping mandates raise important questions about the rapidly changing structure of global governance and Canada’s place in it. In light of Ottawa’s recent failure to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council, the issue of Canada’s place in regional and global groupings has come into sharper focus.

A mature discussion on these issues will require a frank reassessment of four cherished assumptions about Canada’s place in the world.

First, the cliché about Canada joining any club that will welcome Ottawa’s membership is no longer valid. The mood of recent Canadian governments has not been in favour of joining for the sake of joining, but the reality in any case is that there aren’t many international groupings of value that would welcome Canada as a member. The UN Security Council bid is a stark reminder of this point, but other examples include the East Asian Summit (EAS) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Even in the case of clubs that we are bona fide members of, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum Dialogue Partners, new iterations of these groupings can result in Canada being squeezed out. For example, a recent meeting of defence ministers in Hanoi included all the ASEAN countries and eight dialogue partners, but not Canada.

Second, there is an assumption that Canada is already a member of the most important clubs, and can therefore be selective about joining upstart organizations. Our membership in the G8 is seen as the pinnacle of diplomatic exclusivity. Membership in the G20 – and our hosting of the recent meeting in Toronto – also reinforces the sense that we are already in the top tier of global governance. In fact, our hosting of the G20 earlier this year was no more than a happy coincidence that had to do with Canada’s prior commitment to host the G8 meeting in Muskoka.

Likewise, our membership in NAFTA is often seen as an example of Canada already belonging to the most important clubs. Privileged access to the US market has been a boon for the Canadian economy. However, the importance of this special relationship has been diminished over time by the thickening US-Canada border and by the recent economic malaise in the United States.

Furthermore, with the United States in recent years pursuing free trade agreements with other countries, especially in Asia, Canada’s trade preferences in the American market are rapidly being eroded. What is most telling about the diminution of our special relationship is that in at least one instance, the United States, among others, is standing in the way of our ability to join other trade agreements, such as the TPP.

A third assumption that requires unpacking is Canada’s commitment to multilateral trade liberalization. This faith in Geneva, coupled with the belief that we are already party to the one preferential trade agreement that really matters, has made it very difficult to broach the idea of FTAs with other countries, especially emerging markets. After a decade of deadlock in the Doha negotiations, the number of true believers has fallen, but Canada still does not have a single free trade agreement with an Asian partner.

Fourth is a sentiment that Canada should only participate in international clubs where members have shared values such as democracy and respect for human rights. One strand of Canadian reaction to our failure in the UN Security Council vote is that we should be glad to not have been elected into a council by unscrupulous vote-selling member countries, a number of which are flagrant violators of human rights.

This notion is behind the discussion about the need for Canada to put more emphasis on international alliances with like-minded nations, especially democratic countries. The archetypal “like minded” country in Asia is India, and the warming of relations between Ottawa and New Delhi is often framed in those terms. That India in all likelihood voted against Canada’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council should, however, put to rest any simplistic notion of common values as the principal basis for international partnerships.

The balance of power in the world economy will continue to shift towards emerging markets, especially in Asia. Where Canada falls in the fluid landscape of international governance architecture will depend on whether we see the country as part of a fading ancien regime or as contributing to – indeed experimenting with – new institutions.

There is no region more active in institutional experimentation than Asia. EAS, ASEAN plus Three, ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting - Plus, and TPP are examples of institutional experimentation and consolidation – and Canada is absent from all of them.

Whatever may become of these groupings, and of the G8, G20 and APEC, it is safe to assume that Asia will increasingly be in the driver’s seat in the evolution of global governance. Ottawa’s neglect of new and emerging institutional arrangements in the region will render Canada a less effective player in the Asia Pacific, and a smaller role on the world stage.

This piece is based on the latest Canada-Asia Agenda entitled “Membership Has its Privileges: Refocusing Canadian Attention on Regional and Global Governance.”

This was also published in The Embassy Magazine on November 17, 2010.

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