Canada has its eyes on Asia and the lucrative trade markets in the Indo-Pacific region as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heads to the region for a week of international summits and bilateral meetings.
With stops in Indonesia, Singapore and India over six days, relationship building with Asian leaders is a critical goal.
Canada wants in on the region’s rapid growth amid the global green energy transition, in which Canada sees itself as a key player.
It also wants to diversity its trade in the region away from China. Canada launched a new Indo-Pacific strategy last fall, aiming to expand trade links throughout the region to help counter China’s dominance.
It is in the midst of negotiating a comprehensive trade agreement with Indonesia and just temporarily paused formal trade talks with India pending further consultations with business stakeholders.
It already has a trade pact with Singapore as both are signatories to the Pacific Rim trade deal usually referred to as the CPTPP.
Experts caution Trudeau will need to avoid being too preachy during his trip and prove his visit isn’t just a photo-op, but part of a larger commitment that Canada will be in the region for the long term.
“Relationships, relationships, relationships,” said Goldy Hyder, CEO of the Business Council of Canada.
“This is not a place where you come and simply say ‘Hi, I’m here to do business. Lets do a deal.’ This is a place where you cultivate relationships. We have to understand each other’s cultures.”
Hyder said the priority needs to be on trade and economics.
“In today’s world people are talking about the economy first,” he said.
Trudeau’s first stop will be in Jakarta on Sept. 4, where he will meet with Indonesia President Joko Widodo, and attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a group of 10 countries that as a group represent Canada’s fourth largest merchandise trading partner.
On Sept. 6 he will travel to Singapore and spend two days meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and business leaders. He will end the trip with two days in New Delhi, India for the G20 leaders’ summit.
While advocacy groups are urging Western countries to raise human rights issues throughout the G20 Summit, some experts say Canada will be best served by focusing on the economy.
“It will just fall on deaf ears,” said Bessma Momani, a political-science professor at the University of Waterloo. “There’s a strong feeling in the Indo-Pacific of ‘Look, you need us more than we need you, so stop moralizing and preaching to us.”
“It’s not the same environment that you had 10 years ago where Trudeau could go to these places and be on his high horse.”
She said Asian leaders have also been critical of Canada’s presence in the area as being too episodic.
The Indo-Pacific is the fasting growing region in the world, and will play a critical role in shaping Canada’s future over the next 50 years.
By 2030, it will be home to two-thirds of the global middle class, having lifted millions out of poverty through its economic growth. And that population growth is labour Canada needs, especially with its aging population said Hyder.
“We have minimal growth in Canada, we have to find growth and that growth is happening here,” he said.
“The old adage used to be ‘Go west, young man.’ The new thing is ‘Go east young man, young woman.’ That’s where the action is and we have to be a part of it.”
If Canada is left out of discussions, Hyder puts it simply: Our economy would “flatline.”
“If you don’t place your bet here, you stand very little chance of winning and winning big,” he said.
Climate change is key to Canada’s fortunes in the area as Ottawa views itself as a leader in the region’s transition to green energy. Canadian businesses believe they have the fuel, food and fertilizer to help tackle the challenge.
“It’s something we have been stressing that if you really want to lead the world on climate change, you maintain that support by making sure there’s an economic growth strategy attached to it,” Hyder said.
He said he is delighted the prime minister will put an emphasis on the green economy throughout his visit.
Government officials say there is a desire from ASEAN countries to make cleaner products, because they worry about being left out of future investments if they rely on dirty energy for manufacturing.
As for the G20, John Kirton, a political-science professor at the University of Toronto, said climate change is often a grey and divisive cloud, despite it becoming a clearer and present danger.
But Kirton, who leads the G20 Research Group, said if Canada can find a way to transition away from fossil fuels than so can others.
“We all have to, because the tragedy of climate change is it kills poor people and poor countries first,” he said.
This trip marks Trudeau’s first return to India following his controversial 2018 trip international media labelled as an embarrassing disaster.
While regional and state governments in India were very welcoming to Trudeau, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to ignore Trudeau’s presence entirely until the final days of the 10-day visit. Many believed Modi’s behaviour was a deliberate attempt to embarrass Trudeau in retaliation for what India sees as Canada’s lacklustre effort to curtail a movement of Sikh separatism in Canada.
This time, Trudeau is keeping his trip brief, spending just two days in New Delhi solely for the G20 leaders’ meetings. He will focus on climate change, food, energy security and gender equality at that meeting.
He is also expected to advocate for Ukraine who wasn’t invited to the G20 leader’s summit. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also skipping the summit, but will send his foreign minister instead.
“It’s absolutely completely his prerogative what he wants to talk about. And I’m sure whatever he is saying … will have salience in it, and people will talk about it,” said Ottawa’s Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma.
“There are various other platforms in which only Ukraine and Russia are being discussed. So the G20, we want it to be much broader than just covering one issue.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2023.