Canada’s Head Fake Asia Policy?
Image Credit: Office of the Canadian Prime Minister

Canada’s Head Fake Asia Policy?


While the United States has made a self-declared “pivot” toward Asia, Canada’s current Asia policy can perhaps best be described as a “head fake.” In basketball terminology, a pivot is a move in a new direction, while one foot remains firmly planted on the floor; this is an apt metaphor for the renewed interest of the U.S. in Asia as at the same time it remains committed to its existing relationships in the Western Hemisphere and Europe. A head fake on the other hand, is an indication of a change in direction, but in fact no change normally takes place. It’s a passing moment, a tactic to draw attention, while the main thrust of movement lies in another direction.

Canada has been “head faking” a lot in Asia recently. Whether this is more than a tactical move remains to be seen. Canada remains highly committed to getting early entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade talks, and has now been able to secure Peruvian and Chilean endorsement, along with support from Malaysia. However, the deal maker or deal breaker for Canadian entry remains the United States, and during the recent meeting in Washington between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama, the president was careful to couch his support for Canadian participation in very general terms while repeating the caveats about all participants needing to make changes to meet the standards set for the agreement. New Zealand also remains a key stumbling block. Canadian Trade Minister Ed Fast had a chance to meet with his New Zealand counterpart, Tim Groser, at the G-20 Trade Ministers meeting in Mexico, but Groser and New Zealand have been firm on the need for Canada’s antiquated dairy supply management system to be reformed. Harper has said that Canada is prepared to be ambitious and put all issues on the table, but in the same breath, for domestic political purposes, has stressed that Canada will defend its interests, including in individual sectors.

While the TPP remains very much a work in progress for Canada, another prong of what could be an Asian strategy has been stuck in limbo. Canada needs to reach out to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and re-establish the credibility that it once had with that organization. Recent developments in Burma provided an opportune moment to do just that, but after showing an interest in Burmese developments through a visit by Foreign Minister John Baird just prior to the recent by-elections, Canada stood by while other partners of ASEAN moved to announce suspension of sanctions. Only after the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Japan and the EU had announced their moves to relax sanctions did Canada make its move, on April 24. Canada missed the chance to move early and show leadership on the issue, but it was better to move now to join the international consensus than to continue to lag. Baird’s earlier visit was starting to look increasingly like a head fake, not a policy, but the recent move puts Canada back in the game by removing most sanctions, including those pertaining to exports, imports, financial services and investment.

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If Canada is going to actually put in place an Asia-Pacific strategy, and there are some good policy reasons to suggest that this the moment to do so, then it will have to take a more holistic approach than just trying to sign up for trade agreements with as many Asian economies as possible. Energy economics and politics suggest that opening alternate markets across the Pacific for western Canadian bitumen and gas is a smart, if long-term move. It won’t be without its domestic challenges for Harper, given opposition to new pipelines and tankers from environmental and aboriginal groups, among others. But recent reforms to the environmental review process announced in Ottawa suggest that at the end of the day, the pipelines and tanker terminals will be built.

However, an Asia strategy will need more than trade agreements and tankers – it will also require a “whole of government” approach encompassing diplomacy, foreign aid, military commitment, immigration policy and cultural and educational exchanges and understanding.

The Asian team is waiting to see if Canada’s recent moves represent a pivot, with a real intention to change direction, or just another head fake. Only time will tell.

Hugh L. Stephens is Executive in Residence at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, in Vancouver, with 35 years of government and business experience in Asia. He is also principal of Trans-Pacific Connections (

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