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Deepening Canadian Partnerships with ASEAN
This op-ed was published in the Vancouver Sun online on October 11, 2013.
When Canadians think of our country’s priority relationships in Asia, we tend to think of the dominant regional countries, including Japan, India and China. Those nations are undoubtedly important to us, but we must not ignore the tremendous opportunities in Southeast Asia and our growing ties to that dynamic and remarkably diverse region. As I land in Vientiane, Laos, on Monday, it will not only be the first bilateral visit to Laos by a Canadian foreign minister, but it will also complete visits to every Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) country. This symbolism isn’t lost on our ASEAN partners. It is important that Canadians recognize why this region is so key to our future prosperity, and to our broader interests.
The 10-country grouping of ASEAN (Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) has a population of more than 600 million people. ASEAN countries are on their way to forming an integrated market and production base by 2015. As a group, these nations would represent Canada’s seventh-largest trading partner. Known Canadian foreign investment in this region reached $6.7 billion at the end of 2012, and has surpassed our presence in China and India combined. Indeed, our two-way trade has averaged around 5-percent growth in the past five years, defying the 2009 slowdown in the global economy. This robust economic relationship has been mutually beneficial, helping to lift many out of poverty in ASEAN societies while creating a significant number of jobs here in Canada.
Our economic interests in Asia are inextricably tied to issues of security, governance, human rights and development. Canada has a direct stake in ensuring that this region of increasing importance deepens its market integration as a group, but also its connectivity to the global economy more widely. As ASEAN prospers, so will Canadians. Canada is therefore contributing to institutional capacity among ASEAN countries to respond to security challenges, as well as to those in health and economic development, while helping reduce the region’s vulnerability to natural disasters. And we are supporting their policies and processes to strengthen democratic development and deepen commitments to human rights.
Canada has been a Dialogue Partner with ASEAN since 1977, but in recent years both sides have worked to elevate relations to a new level. Canada appointed its first Ambassador to ASEAN in 2009. One year later, we acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, ASEAN’s peace treaty. More recently, we have jointly elaborated a more formal comprehensive relationship. The Joint Declaration on ASEAN-Canada Enhanced Partnership, in July 2009, deepened cooperation in key areas: political and security questions, economic ties, and social and cultural linkages. These aspects have also been the focus of a detailed and forward-looking ASEAN-Canada Plan of Action, adopted in 2010. A year later, Canada signed a Trade and Investment Framework. Our relationships have not deepened by accident.
Southeast Asia is a region not only of extraordinary growth and exceptional opportunities, but also of important challenges. The South China Sea, which links the various members, is critical to its present and future prosperity and security. As the second-busiest shipping route on the planet, it is also important to Canada’s economy and to the global economy as a whole. Worryingly, territorial disputes in the South China Sea have intensified in recent years. One factor is the richness of the region’s seabed, whose ownership is contested by several countries of ASEAN, as well as by China. While we don’t take sides in such disputes, we continue to bring Canada’s voice to bear in urging the development of a South China Sea code of conduct that all countries of the region embrace. Canadian support to strengthened ASEAN institutions and our continuing encouragement of ASEAN unity are important factors toward sustaining regional stability and avoiding conflict.
I have stated before that relationships matter in Asia—perhaps more so than anywhere else—and so does the consistency of our engagement. Prime Minister Stephen Harper understands this, which is why his visit to Malaysia last week was so important. Incoming visits just this past month by foreign ministers from Indonesia and Singapore also signify the importance that ASEAN countries place on Canada.
Canadians, too, are playing a growing role. Last year, International Trade Minister Ed Fast announced the formation of the Canada-ASEAN Business Council to strengthen these bonds. That was an initiative led by the private sector that engaged partners in universities, civil society, business and government.
Southeast Asia matters to Canada, and Canada matters to the region. Often you hear officials talk about the need to diversify our markets, and while apparent in our engagement with ASEAN, it is also important to diversify our political interests. While our economic and social relationship with China remains important for our government, our relations with ASEAN must be equally important. The future security and prosperity of Canada will depend on it.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister
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