Alex Paterson

Blog: Why ‘Asia – it’s big!’ won’t cut it

March 7, 2013

I’ve got a confession: lately I’m getting really bored with how we’re talking about Asia.

And frankly, that sucks, because it seems like it’s all anyone wants to talk about right now.

From cyber threats, foreign takeovers, oil investment, free trade agreements, trans-pacific partnerships, food safety concerns, and (in North Korea’s case) blatant outward aggression towards the West, we are unmistakably at the dawn of a new Pacific century that presents new and uncharted challenges.

So sure, that’s going to get people talking.

But I have to say, when it comes to the quality of conversation right now – and the sorts of conclusions we arrive at – it leaves something to be desired. We seem to arrive at the same, fairly uninformative, conclusion: Asia – it’s big!

I don’t mean to be glib, and please leave a note in the comments if you disagree, but events, debates, panel talks, round-tables and conferences that are loosely about Canada and Asia are increasingly coming across like a bad Rodney Dangerfield sketch. “Well I tell ya, I tell ya folks, Asia – Asia it’s big, real big!”

Crass, maybe, but I don’t see anything particularly new being added to the debate other than the same tired questions: Do we need an ‘Asian strategy’? Are we ‘missing the boat’? Will we get ‘left behind’? Are we doing enough to build relationships ‘on the ground’?

Maybe it’s because we’re struck dumb at the size, scale, pace and scope of development in the Asian region. Because, yes, Asia’s growth is unprecedented, and nowhere is this more acutely understood than in Canada where the equivalent of our 35 million citizens constitutes a morning commute up and around the Yangtze every Tuesday morning.

But is talking about a) how massive Asia is, and b) how hopeless Canada is in engaging the region, really the best we can do?

I don’t want to discourage conversation or debate. Nor do I suggest that organizations and conferences and speaker series up until this point have done a disservice to our understanding of the global shift eastward. Canada 2020 hosts panels and talks all the time, and I’m sure we have been guilty of perpetuating generalities about the ‘Asia challenge’ ourselves.

But we need to get over our collective paralysis at the scale of development, and start having better conversations – more strategic conversations – that hive off the component parts in manageable chunks. Want to talk security? Talk security. Want to talk trade and investment? Talk trade and investment. Yes these issues are cross-cutting, but we really need to be focused and disciplined if we are to build a collective understanding of where the real opportunities for Canada lie.

It’s a process, and it will be ongoing. But if we’re going to help each other be engaged members of the policy community that shapes and forms opinions and decisions, then we need to better educate one another. That means understanding that:

a)    Asia is not just China;

b)    … but China is a very important part of the equation;

c)     The component parts of a conversation demand more time, and are more useful, than general hand-wringing; and;

d)   Speaking to opportunities for Canada is more productive than dwelling on the threats.

That way, we won’t be so easily impressed with the X number of trade missions our federal government sent to China; or so easily scared when a state-owned enterprise seeks to buy into strategic Canadian industries. We’ll see the kind of strategic planning happening in countries like Australia, and be both jealous and motivated. We will be calmer, cooler, and more collected, because our conversations will have more focus and more boundaries: and boundaries give purpose.

So, Canada 2020, now that you’re perched ever so precariously on your high horse, what are you going to do that’s so different and better?

Good question!

Our next panel on Asia is squarely focused on the opportunities present for Canadian firms in the rapidly urbanizing city regions in the ‘second wave’ of emerging Asian markets. It’s called Asia’s cities, Canada’s opportunity, and it’s our specific, targeted contribution to a more strategic conversation about Asia. We will not be talking about security – we will not be talking about human rights – there are other organizations that would be far better suited to host those discussions, and we invite them to do that. We will be talking about cities in Asia, and how Canadian companies can find opportunities to play – and learn.

If we – engaged, interested, and (some of us) influential – Canadians cannot have better conversations about the rise of Asia, and the progressive policy responses that will help governments and businesses in Canada to prosper, then – and I hate myself for ending like this – we will truly ‘miss the boat’.

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Blog: Why ‘Asia – it’s big!’ won’t cut it

Our conversations on Asia are stuck in a rut – and that’s a problem. If we’re going to help each other be engaged members of the policy community that shapes and forms opinions and decisions, we need to be smarter in how we talk about the opportunities and risks in engaging the new pacific century.

  1. Pingback: Event recap: Drilling down on the Asian cities agenda | Canada 2020

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