Julie Smyth

Panelists share their views on Asia: opportunities abound, but Canada is way behind

April 12, 2012

Ottawa – Canada must move aggressively to meet the Asia challenge, according to an expert panel organized by Canada 2020.

The panel led a timely discussion on Canada’s relationship with Asia, generating debate and questions about why Canada has not yet seized on the tremendous opportunities in China and other Asian countries.

The event, held at the Chateau Laurier last night, attracted the largest ever number of registrants to a Canada 2020 event. Organizers had to move the event to one of the hotel’s biggest rooms to accommodate the crowd of more than 300 people.

Diana Carney, VP of Special Projects at Canada 2020, introduced the speakers and noted Canada has been a “laggard” when it comes to Asia. For Canada, there are threats and opportunities and what remains to be seen is whether the threats or the challenges triumph, she told the crowd.

Last night’s panel included distinguished experts on Asia, three of whom authored articles in the Canada 2020 book The Canada We Want in 2020: Towards a Strategic Policy Roadmap for the Federal Government. The event was the fourth of five panels based on the book.

Dominic Barton, a Canadian who is the Global Managing Director at McKinsey & Co., worked in Asia from 2000-2009. He is frustrated by Canada’s lack of progress in Asia: “We are way far behind most countries in the world and I think it is actually embarrassing. There is a huge opportunity, as we all know, but we are way behind.”

When he worked in Shanghai and Korea, he watched many Canadian firms arrive in Asia, but noted that few invested.

He spoke about agri-food being an area of tremendous opportunity and said Canada should take on a greater role in research and development in clean technology (so that we can offer an `energy package’ to Asian customers).  Education and tourism are other areas of opportunity.

Also on the panel was Yuen Pau Woo, President and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. He said Asia is clearly on Canada’s radar – Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made two trips in the past three months and the 2012 federal budget underscores the focus on Asia. However, he noted that he was astonished that we have not responded more enthusiastically to China’s recent and unprecedented offer to negotiate a free trade deal with our country.

In his view, Canada’s latest efforts in Asia are little more than a “catch-up strategy” when what the country needs is a “leap-frog strategy” that capitalizes on our assets, primarily the strong personal ties between China and Canada, and our energy resources.

“I believe we have the longest, deepest and most profound ties that China has with any Western country,” said Mr. Woo.

On energy, he said, Canada is a unique position. “The way in which the geo-politics of energy are shaping up suggest that Asia, in its long-term quest for energy security, can find a long-term partner in Canada.”

Mr. Woo also argued that it is not just about China, and not just about oil. He noted growing opportunities to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Asia, especially Japan,  which is moving away from nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster.

Rana Sarkar, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canada-India Business Council, spoke about the importance of intra-Asian relations, noting that the relationship between India and China will be “one of the greatest transforming relationships in the 21st century.”

He added that Canada’s mindset in terms of Asia is stuck in the past. “We are running 20th century software for a 21st century problem and that is fundamentally the issue.”

He said Canada should not take its eye off India. The last time a Canadian Prime Minister visited India was in 2009, he pointed out.

The Canada 2020 event also heard from guest speaker Peter Wilkinson, Senior Vice-President of Government Relations at Manulife Financial and a former chief of staff to the Ontario Premier and Minister of Finance.  He detailed his firm’s longstanding relationship with Asia: Manulife has been doing business in Asia for more than a century.

His advice: Companies should look to government for help and support but, ultimately, the private sector should not wait for government to pave the way for international expansion.

Mr. Wilkinson said it is worth the effort required to do well in Asia. “Whether you are promoting Canada in Asia or Asia to Canadian business, the bottom line is this: you are investing in your success and Canada’s future.”

After a lively debate and discussion, the panel took a number of questions from the audience and through Twitter, from those watching the livestream coverage. Questions focussed on the barriers to investing in China, how to balance human rights issues with economic benefits, about political stability in China, whether government action will spur on companies, and why the Canadian government has become more receptive to doing business in China in recent years.

One of the biggest questions of the night: why is Canada so far behind other countries in embracing Asia? Panellists speculated it is easier to do business with America, which is so close by, that Canadians are reluctant to take risks, and that Canadian companies have difficulty closing deals in Asia and are not prepared to put in the time and energy to understand the vastly different business culture.

Mr. Woo said, surprisingly, there is also limited support for an Asian strategy among Canadians. People in this country see the opportunities in Asia but are both nervous and ambivalent and reluctant to invest in learning about Asia languages and culture.

The event closed with an invitation from the organizers to stay engaged in the debate, through attending future events and visiting the Canada 2020 website.

Canada 2020’s next panel discussion, on May 10, will focus on the federal role in healthcare.

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