Canada’s inaugural attendance at the East Asia Summit (EAS) marked a decent beginning for the country’s renewed engagement with Southeast Asia. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gained an invitation to the influential forum, no small feat for the leader of a non-Asian nation. Canada also gained a visible sponsor among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states in the Philippines, a country with which Canada shares bonds of democracy, free markets and a focus on empowering women. Moreover, almost 1 million native-born Filipinos now call Canada home, and these people-to-people ties provide strong forward momentum to the relationship between Manila and Ottawa. Securing the Philippines’ support for Canada’s eventual membership at the East Asia Summit was a savvy manoeuvre, and it has opened the door to a promising path of deeper Canada-ASEAN engagement.
But Canadians need to be careful about prematurely celebrating this initial achievement. Manila has provided an opportunity. Translating this initial opportunity into meaningful progress will require more thought and more plain hard diplomatic work than early analysis suggests. Having gained access to the EAS, Ottawa now needs to move quickly to develop a solid ASEAN strategy, one that goes deeper than just “wanting in” and articulates tangible benefits for Canadians and Southeast Asians alike. What does Canada want from EAS membership and how will we seek to get it? In developing their strategy, it’s imperative that Canadian officials pivot from “ASEAN: Canada wants in” to “ASEAN: Now what?”
This question must be answered in two parts. First, what are Canada’s interests in ASEAN and its related institutions? When asked the question directly, Trudeau offered that “Canada is deeply committed to multilateral institutions and fora, and the East Asia Summit is an important one.” He’s technically correct, but that fact alone is just not a strong enough basis for good Asia policy. Multilateralism is indeed a hallmark of Canadian diplomacy and has arguably been integral to nearly every Canadian achievement on the world stage since 1914. Even Ottawa’s single bilateral headline achievement — the 1989 Free Trade Agreement with the United States — ultimately gave way to a multilateral format with NAFTA. But 20th-century multilateralism had a definite purpose: to build and maintain a postwar order centred on bringing political and economic stability to the West after the catastrophes of two world wars. This rationale was the North Star that guided Canada to support the United Nations and NATO, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, and other organizations in the Bretton Woods family. In the 20th-century context, multilateralism made good sense as a way to bring stability and consensus to a West that had suffered violent division.
This context bears little resemblance to 21st-century Asia. Moreover, Canada’s reputation — while good — is simply not well enough known among Southeast Asian nations to provide an easy rationale for including Canada in their regional organizations. It may be true that Asia “needs more Canada,” but it certainly doesn’t know it yet. A Canadian appeal to multilateralism for multilateralism’s sake is not going to be persuasive enough to overcome that reality and gain Canada the meaningful access it wants. Instead, Ottawa needs to identify and articulate a clear set of Canadian goals for Southeast Asian engagement. This articulation of intent is absolutely essential as a way of communicating Canada’s aims to its new Southeast Asian partners and, more importantly, to Canada and Canadians. The simple observation that the East Asia Summit is “the most relevant regional security organization that Canada is not a member of — yet” may be enough to get Canada through the door, but it will not be enough to secure permanent membership, let alone real value. For that, Ottawa needs a clear and comprehensive ASEAN strategy.
The second part of the question is what Canada can offer to ASEAN member states. Remember, in the contemporary Asian context, Canada’s postwar record of solid global citizenship and free and fair trade through Bretton Woods institutions doesn’t pay big dividends. Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia care little about Canadian achievements at Vimy Ridge or Juno Beach. They have no overriding interest in the strength of NATO and no direct knowledge of Canada’s contribution to that alliance. They don’t have any exposure to Canadian peacekeeping and no particular desire to see it either expand or shrink. In Southeast Asia, Canadian foreign policy doesn’t have the benefit of an established diplomatic credibility that is still so influential in Europe, or even the peacekeeping dividend that it enjoys in Africa. In this context, Canada will need to think outside the box about what it can offer these new partners who have a benign, but rather uninformed, view of Canada.
During his pitch to ASEAN, the Prime Minister offered some thoughts. He noted to journalists that Canada is a Pacific country with a desire to engage constructively in regional security, development, human rights and economic opportunity. Will these issues match Southeast Asian foreign policy goals? The list is certainly comprehensive, but it translates into mixed messages to Southeast Asian ears. Regional security is very much a priority in East Asia these days, so Trudeau’s placing it first on the list is a winning approach. True, Southeast Asia is mostly more worried about a growing China than about North Korea, which is peripheral to its core interests. Still, security and North Korea are good engagement issues on which there is much common ground.
On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s reference to human rights not only falls flat with an ASEAN audience but will likely be received by Southeast Asians as dangerously contradictory to his commitment to regional security. Human-rights-driven globalism is seen by many ASEAN members as corrosive to national sovereignty and to ASEAN itself, as a community forged in mutual respect, sovereignty and consensus. Its members are rightly proud of having resisted the ethnic border wars and proxy fights that have engulfed much of the world after the colonial era. For better or worse, they attribute their success to a commitment to postcolonial borders (however inappropriately drawn) and mutual respect for national sovereignty within those handed-down lines. Independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and noninterference are the leading provisions in ASEAN’s charter. The West’s globalist human rights agenda threatens that unspoken code, so ASEAN states typically pursue their humanitarian concerns behind closed doors rather than at press conferences. Even in egregious cases, like the current crisis over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya minority, it’s considered inflammatory and threatening to refer to a neighbour’s domestic behaviour in an ASEAN forum, even as some pointed closed-door diplomacy on these issues is widely embraced. Ironically, Canada should be able to relate to this attitude. Even today, 50 years later, official Canada still fumes at French President Charles de Gaulle’s “unacceptable” 1967 “Vive le Québec libre” speech. Similarly, in Southeast Asia, minorities and their rights are considered sovereign issues of the utmost sensitivity. Foreign leaders are entitled to their opinions, but these should be communicated privately and with a desire to help, not undermine, the national authorities. If Canada “wants in,” it would be wise to do as the Romans do and separate public from private diplomacy in a carefully thought out choreography.
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Development and economic opportunity are at the heart of any win-win scenario for Canada-ASEAN relations. Trudeau and his cabinet correctly perceive that there is much to be gained in expanding Canadian trade via a forum in which more than half of the global economy is represented. Indeed, free trade is in many ways the leitmotif of ASEAN these days, and in East Asia more broadly. Clearly, any new partner is going to be judged on its ability to deliver value in that realm. It’s for that reason that Canada’s tepid approach to the reformatted Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP11, now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP) leaves a lot of big question marks for Canadian policy in ASEAN. If we want deeper engagement with ASEAN, we will need to articulate our value to the regional trade agenda clearly and persuasively. This doesn’t have to mean embracing CPTPP; a clearly stated alternative might also work. But ASEAN member states are unlikely to go out of their way to include Canada in any regionally significant forum or diplomatic discussion on the basis of vague statements or vacillation about trade. As an organization of small states in a fast-moving region, ASEAN doesn’t have the diplomatic resources to engage everyone. Ottawa needs to make a very persuasive case that Canada is worth the time and effort. With continued engagement and some diplomatic hard work, a very good case for Canada can (and hopefully will) be made. Ottawa should make this a priority.
Canadians should feel positive about our first steps toward deeper relations with one of the most influential and dynamic subregions in the world. We should also remain clear-eyed about how much work lies ahead. Canada’s future with ASEAN is not foreordained, so it will not come easily. Right now it’s a blank page, with room for well-articulated interests to be defined and a robust strategy to be written. We’d do well to postpone some of the early celebration of our first steps and get down to the old-fashioned hard work of policy development and diplomacy. We need to seize this “Canada wants in to ASEAN” moment before our “Now what?” turns into “So what?”
The views in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent the official views of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, the US Department of Defense or the US government.
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