What’s missing from Freeland’s foreign policy speech: Asia

Major shifts are taking places in Asia that are re-shaping the global order — a foreign policy that doesn’t take these shifts into account remains superficial and incomplete, argues Canada’s former ambassador to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

By: /
June 9, 2017
HK
Residential buildings are seen in Hong Kong, China July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Chrystia Freeland has done something that previous Canadian foreign ministers have not done for a long time. She has presented in Parliament a broad vision of Canada’s foreign policy aimed at challenging current trends and sentiments that threaten to undermine liberal internationalism. 

The speech reasserts Canada’s commitment to post-war institutions, which face charges of increasing irrelevance, and promises to back this commitment with “hard power.” In the face of growing challenges to the rights of women and girls, it offers a foreign policy rooted in feminism. Faced with rising protectionism, the speech asserts the importance of free trade, provided countries do a better job of sharing the benefits. As the United States appears to succumb to these trends and retreat from global leadership, Freeland asserts Canada's intention to step up and follow a different, internationalist path.

This is all commendable, and the argument in favour of Canada stepping up to support a liberal global agenda is a powerful one that resonates well in many quarters. It is unfortunate, however, that this vision, which will presumably drive Canada’s foreign policy decisions, remains grounded in the same narrow trans-Atlantic bias that continues to haunt Canada's foreign policy decision-makers. 

In particular, Freeland’s treatment of Asia is based on dated and narrow thinking, centred on an inaccurate perspective on the past, and does not take into account Asia's global role and its impact on Canada's future.

In fact, the speech gives scant reference to the non-Western world. It refers to the “rapid emergence of the global south and Asia — especially China” and the need to “integrate them into the world’s economic and political system.” It is not clear who needs to be integrated. China is a founding member of the United Nations and has been a permanent member of the Security Council since its founding. Japan, a UN member for over 60 years, has been an economic power and one of the largest economies in the world for some time. China, Japan and India are members of the World Trade Organization, as are most Asian countries, including smaller countries like Laos and Mongolia. One of the four Deputy Directors-General of the WTO is Chinese.

"Not only do countries like China not need our help to join the club, but they have formed their own clubs."

These countries and their companies have global economic engagement. Into what system exactly do they need to be integrated? The image Freeland presents is of Canada helping them join a global club formed by Western countries, which not only comes across as surprisingly out of touch and condescending, but also overestimates Canada's own influence. Not only do these countries not need our help to join the club, but they have formed their own clubs. Canada has joined a few of them, like APEC and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and remains shut out of others, such as the East Asia Summit.

Later, the speech refers in one breath to the economic ascendancy of countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and Africa “delivering ever-increasing living standards to fast-growing populations.” Here the presentation is sweeping in its geographic coverage, but narrow in its assessment. There is great diversity among and within these regions, and they deserve more than being seen only through an economic lens. China is strengthening its political and economic influence through South East Asia, Central Asia and beyond through infrastructure development, soft power and its Belt and Road Initiative. Japan, sensing a growing power vacuum in its neighbourhood and uncertain about U.S. intentions in Asia, is working to cultivate allies and counter China's influence. Democratic governance appears to be in retreat. 

Worldwide displacement has hit an all-time high. How will Canada navigate these challenges if we treat these regions as afterthoughts?

Even when the speech dealt with free trade, it focused on Canada’s trade agreement with Europe (CETA), and ignores Canada’s existing free trade agreement with South Korea, as well as the exploration of free trade with China, and possibly ASEAN. Yet it is in Asia where the greatest growth is to be found. 

Tectonic shifts are taking place in Asia that are re-shaping the global economic and political order. A foreign policy that does not acknowledge the scope of these shifts, nor address Canada’s approach to them, remains superficial and incomplete.