The Debate

What Canada’s Leadership Change Means for Asia

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The Debate

What Canada’s Leadership Change Means for Asia

What will Canada’s Asia policy look like under new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

What Canada’s Leadership Change Means for Asia
Credit: Justin Trudeau image via arindambanerjee /

In a sweeping upset that brought down the decade-long Conservative regime, 43-year old Canadian Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau captured the golden snitch in parliamentary politics: a majority government. Armed with this mandate, Trudeau has a lot of room to make changes in Canadian foreign policy if he chooses to — and it’s likely he will.

Trudeau, the son of former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, carries not only his father’s legacy on his shoulders but also that of the Liberal Party of Canada, which governed Canada for almost seven decades in the 20th century and saw the likes of Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester B. Pearson and Trudeau senior making major headway abroad. This legacy, built upon notions of peacekeeping, pluralism and multilateralism — and one that the Canadian left claims has been diluted over recent years — featured prominently in the election campaign, and is set to inform the prime minister-elect’s decisions going forward.

A rough outline for Trudeau’s foreign policy looks something like this: in line with his Liberal predecessors, he wants Canada to take on a more proactive global role and become the peaceful multilateralist that he says went on hiatus under the previous government. Trudeau will be a pragmatist, but he will also seek to insert the ‘liberal’ back into foreign policy — which means doing more on climate change and refugees, and less on fighter jets and democratic capitalism on Huntington-esque terms.

Having won the election riding on voter fatigue with the incumbent party, Trudeau can be bold without alienating his public (at least for the initial months). Asia — China especially — is a particular policy area where he has been urged to take more action.

Some quick statistics: China consistently ranks as Canada’s second-largest trading partner (after the United States). According to 2014 estimates, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong also figure within Canada’s top 10.

What’s puzzling — and disconcerting to Asia watchers in Canada — is that these numbers do not reflect how much China, or Asia as a whole, featured in an election campaign driven by economic concerns. During the foreign policy leaders’ debate, Asia was discussed fleetingly by the then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and China was mentioned only once in passing. The question now, and one that’s especially relevant as Canada debates ratification of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), is what the new Trudeau government means for Canada’s Asia policy.

First of all, despite rising concerns and the lack of public knowledge about the agreement, Canada will most likely follow through and ratify the TPP. While Trudeau wiggled on his position prior to the election — fearful of angering his voter base in the domestic auto industry — he knows that Canada simply cannot afford to leave the agreement. His public statement prior to the election, while not offering any commitments, avows his support for free trade and promises a full and open debate for Canadians to weigh in on the agreement upon his election to office.

But whether or not Canada joins will not be as much a deal-breaker for the trade partnership as the omission of either the U.S. or Japan. Canada currently accounts for only seven percent in total GDP contribution, and so while its absence will be regrettable, the threshold of 85 percent GDP contribution needed for the agreement to come into force can be reached with the participation of other countries as long as the U.S. and Japan are involved.

The lack of public engagement on the TPP in Canada is part of a broader truth: Asia simply isn’t a top priority in the public mind. That narrative plays out through numbers. A 2014 national poll conducted by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APF Canada) reveals that less than 39 percent of Canadians aged 55+ believe that Asia should be a top foreign policy priority. The number, at 42 percent, is slightly higher for those 18-29. Along the same lines, only 44 percent of those older than 55 believe that Canada would benefit from more investment in Asia. For those 18-29, the percentage drops to 42 percent. What’s more, these percentages are all slight dips from 2013.

A similar survey conducted earlier this year reveals that while a majority of respondents expressed positive views of investment from Japan, South Korea, and India, only 42 percent viewed Chinese investment in a favorable light. Canadians are especially wary of China’s investments in the resources and urban real estate sectors, and are still bitter over the 2012 $11.4 billion USD purchase of the Canadian oil company Nexen by state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) — then the largest-ever single acquisition by a Chinese company.

Feeding into these reservations are Canadian concerns over China’s records on issues like the environment and human rights. APF Canada concludes in their report that Canadian views on foreign investment are intimately tied with their perceptions of the investing countries.

Prominent media commenters like former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien have for years disparaged Harper’s foreign policy and his lack of attention on Asia — the roots of which could either lie in the public apathy or in Harper’s reluctance to move away from his “principled” foreign policy, or both. Experts who study the Asia-Pacific say that Canada is not taken seriously in the region, noting that outside of showing up to a few key conferences, the country is largely absent from several regional multilateral bodies. In his recent book Middle Power, Middle Kingdom, former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney calls out Harper on his “on-again, off-again relationship” with China.

Under Trudeau, China is where we’ll most likely see a shift in attitude, and a more invigorated approach in the warming of relations. Trudeau’s numerous statements over the years — including a gaffe praising China’s “basic dictatorship” for helping turn around its economy — highlight his eagerness to pursue a more consensual, pragmatic approach to China (similar to that of the British).

Along these lines, Canada will most likely support China’s entry into the TPP. Moreover, the Trudeau government will look very closely at China’s proposal to establish a free trade agreement (FTA) with Canada, and, according to Brock University professor Charles Burton, will realize the deal before the next election in 2019. Some experts also expect Canada to reconsider membership in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Trudeau also has his legacy on hand to play. The fact that Pierre Trudeau was one of the first Western leaders to establish diplomatic relations with China has not been forgotten by a dynasty-conscious China, where President Xi Jinping is one of many second-generation leaders. Trudeau will receive a warm welcome when he makes it over to Beijing, a visit during which the Chinese will no doubt pump nostalgia over the important role his father played during the Cold War. (Photos of Trudeau senior during his trip to China in 1973 are already trending on Chinese social media forums.)

At the end of the day Trudeau’s foreign policy will be aggressive, but in a different manner than his predecessor. In other words, expect little Canadian action in the South China Sea and more on less controversial areas like the environment.

What Trudeau will need to wrestle with is that, regardless of any enthusiasm from Ottawa, Asia will only view Canada as a middle power. And with the mellowing of his appetite for change over time, Trudeau will soon realize the great constraints that come with being the leader of an avowed peace-loving democracy. But, as British Prime Minister David Cameron himself declared amid accusations last week of selling out to China, constructive economic relationships and engagement on controversy are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is up to Trudeau to navigate a balance between the two to establish the Canada that he claims to stand for: a global leader and a vibrant economic force in Asia.