Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Canada’s ASEAN Play

A trip to Burma by Canada’s foreign minister suggests a shift in policy toward the junta. It could also herald closer engagement with Southeast Asia.

By Hugh Stephens for

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird’s trip to Burma this month marks not only a sea-change in Canada’s relations with the government of that country, but could also signal a long-awaited renewal of Canadian interest in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

This is a timely tilt for Canada as moving forward with closer relations with ASEAN could be a useful fallback if Canada’s plans to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks fall through. Along with a recent realization of China’s importance to Canada, and a reversal of its previous position to eschew the TPP talks, the move on Burma is part of a concerted thrust by the majority Conservative government of Stephen Harper to refurbish Canada’s tarnished Asian credentials. Thus the move of the junta to loosen restrictions on the opposition comes at a fortuitous time for Canada, and Baird hasn’t been slow to take advantage of the opening.

Canada has long taken a hard line on the Burmese junta, imposing, in its own words, “the toughest (unilateral) sanctions of any country.” Canada’s relations with ASEAN had been strong through the 1980s and 1990s but then, as with its other interests in Asia, the country seemed to lose focus. The admittance of Burma (Myanmar) to ASEAN in 1997 further complicated matters, leading to a suspension of the annual Canada-ASEAN Dialogue Partner meetings for over five years. After a long period of benign neglect, Canadian interest in ASEAN began to stir a couple of years ago, and in July 2010 Canada acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN states. Although Canada was the last of ASEAN’s dialogue partner states – and the last of the members of the ASEAN Regional Forum to accede – it was a case of better late than never and signaled the possibility of a renewed interest in Southeast Asia by Canada. Foreign Minister Baird attended the 44th ASEAN Regional Conference in Bali last July, and in October, Canada concluded a somewhat frothy Joint Declaration on Trade and Investment with ASEAN.

Where will all this lead?

That’s an open question at this point, but after a decade or more of neglect, Canada is once again showing some interest in the region as part of the Harper government’s plan to “diversify” Canada’s economic relations (i.e. to reduce dependence on the United States). It has already formally expressed an interest in joining the TPP, but it’s proving difficult for Canada to climb aboard. As a result, the government is keeping an eye open for other alternatives if Canada isn’t admitted to the talks, or is admitted only after the main structure of the TPP Agreement has been reached.

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One possibility is to focus on ASEAN, which already has trade agreements with a number of states (Australia/New Zealand, China, India, Japan and Korea). Canada might even aspire to membership in the East Asia Summit (EAS), which grew from ASEAN’s annual dialogues with its partners, and now includes Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Korea, India, Russia and the U.S. Canada is the only ASEAN dialogue partner with a plausible claim to being an Asia-Pacific country not to have been invited to join the EAS. (The EU is also a dialogue partner and not an EAS member, but clearly doesn’t “qualify” geographically).

Hopefully, for the sake of the Burmese people, the experiment with elections will prove to be successful. But success in this area could have a surprising side effect. For Canada, being able to engage with Burma on human rights issues would remove one more obstacle to re-engagement with ASEAN. For Burma to shed its pariah status, it will require development assistance, and its mineral wealth could provide opportunities for Canadian companies in this sector. Those who would like to see Canada re-engage will welcome the economic impetus. Political progress in Burma may help pave the way to make that happen.

Hugh Stephens is Principal of TransPacific Connections (TPC Consulting) www.tpconnections.com and is Executive-in-Residence at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, in Vancouver.