Asian gravy train worth pursuing: Clark

Last week, the Council of the Federation, otherwise casually known as the premiers’ conference, met in Vancouver to brainstorm trade initiatives and strategies to position provinces and territories in the global economy.

Last week, the Council of the Federation, otherwise casually known as the premiers’ conference, met in Vancouver to brainstorm trade initiatives and strategies to position provinces and territories in the global economy. Among the initiatives hashed out, a key one was to broaden and strengthen relationships with Asia and capitalize on the advantages of our personal, cultural and business connections nurtured through our diversity and multicultural policies.

Over the past few decades, Asia has made a stunning transformation as its consumer-hungry middle class explode with new wealth and opportunity. Their influence has proven formidable. After all, they represent 60 per cent of the world’s population and with coin in their pockets to spend they have become the driving force behind their countries’ investments in infrastructure such as roads, railways, expansion of towns and cities and new airports.

Yet according to the Council, Canada has no trade agreements with Asia despite the fact that exports to the region are impressive. According to the Canada West Foundation, Western Canada exports to Asia reached $29.9 billion in 2010 of which British Columbia’s exports were $11.8 billion, not far behind our province’s U.S. exports at $13.7 billion.

In their press release, the premiers said that “The federal government must set a new and ambitious trade and liberalization agenda to guide Canada’s engagement with Asian countries.” They encouraged the federal government to achieve the Canada-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with their participation.

Free trade negotiations with India were launched last September when the Hon. Peter Van Loan, minister of international trade, visited New Delhi. India is one of the fastest-growing economies on the planet and it is projected to be the world’s third largest economy in less than 40 years.

Given its billion-plus population, rising per capita income levels, expanding manufacturing base, high tech services, growing infrastructure, natural resource requirements and close cultural ties, there are huge opportunities for Canadian companies.

Historically, the U.S. has been our most important trading partner and continues to be so. Our share of trade to the U.S. is rising but it’s rising even more with trade with the Asia Pacific region.

Apparently, this year has been designated the Year of India in Canada by the Government of India with activities taking place in several provinces to help Canadians know more about the country, its people, cultures, traditions and economies. Considering a recent poll, that’s pretty timely.

Despite all the economic growth and predicted opportunities, an opinion poll commissioned by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and done by Angus Reid found that Canadians were remarkably disconnected from the idea that Canada is part of the Asia Pacific region, never mind warm and fuzzy toward individual Asian countries.

In 2008, 30 per cent of Canadians agreed that Canada was part of the AP region but in 2011 that dropped to 26 per cent. The importance of China and India, though, was apparent. Two-thirds of Canadians thought China’s influence would be greater than the U.S. in ten years whereas one- third believed India’s influence would surpass the States in a decade. But attitudes toward Asian countries are pretty cool. Only one in 10 Canadians feel warmly toward China, India, South Korea and Southeast Asia compared to six in ten Canadians who feel warmly toward Australia, a country similar in many ways (language, currency, traditions, lifestyles) to Canada.

Within 12 months, the premiers will pursue a joint Council of the Federation mission to Asia with the federal government to promote an international trade agenda for Canada. Premier Clark is on the right track when encouraging all premiers to get on board the Asian gravy train.

Long term, we’ll all benefit from that economic ride.

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