Harper's secret Asia policy: much like his public Asia policy - Macleans.ca

Harper’s secret Asia policy: much like his public Asia policy

Paul Wells considers the government’s master plan on China


The CBC has its hands on a late draft of the super-secret foreign-policy master plan the government has been mulling for more than a year. The CBC story is fascinating. And oddly familiar.

“We need to be frank with ourselves — our influence and credibility with some of these new and emerging powers is not as strong as it needs to be and could be,” the document says. “Canada’s record over past decades has been to arrive late in some key emerging markets. We cannot do so in the future.”

And while the document uses similar language to announce the discovery that Asian countries are growing (“The situation is stark: Canada’s trade and investment relations with new economies, leading with Asia, must deepen, and as a country we must become more relevant to our new partners”), it also notes that some African countries are in the early stages of growth curves that could end up resembling India’s and China’s.

I’m tickled by the language. “We need to be frank,” and “The situation is stark,” and dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer. The prime minister’s remarks on foreign affairs often have a similar why-does-nothing-get-done-until-I-show-up tone. Whoever held the pen on this policy document is adept at writing what the boss likes to read. In fact, as Greg Weston points out, the potential in Asia and the potential for potential in Africa is not a well-kept secret to this government, nor was it unnoticed by its predecessors.

I wrote in February about the odd similarities between Harper’s 2012 Davos agenda and Paul Martin’s 2005 big-thinking speech to bureaucrats. The Davos agenda replaces an earlier Harper agenda which consisted largely — and he was hardly alone in this — of taking economic growth for granted and redistributing the spoils of an assumed prosperity. As I wrote in that February column:

[Jim Flaherty’s] first budget speech, in 2006, carried the title “Focusing on Priorities.” And what did he describe as priorities? In order: “Providing immediate and substantial tax relief,” he said. “Encouraging the skilled trades.” “Families and communities.” “Investing in infrastructure.” “Security.” “Accountability.” “Expenditure management.” “Restoring fiscal balance for our Canadian federation.” And right down there at the bottom, “prosperity.” So you can’t say it wasn’t the No. 1 priority. It’s right there in ninth place.

In Flaherty’s 2007 budget speech, the word “growth” appeared once.

Not all the advice to Harper to change his game has been private. Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney has been saying for a year (probably longer, but I’ve been noticing it for a year) that “We are overexposed to the United States and underexposed to faster-growing emerging markets… Our poor performance prior to the crisis was more a reflection of who we traded with than how effectively we did it.”

A Harper government that’s re-engaging with the whole world, having learned it cannot long treat the world like a list of subjects that won’t be on the exam, was the subject of this column I wrote last month.

It’d be easy for me to make a show of welcoming Harper to the world of hard-nosed realism after he spent three years indulging a snooty attitude toward the Chinese ruling elite, but these are hard questions and it was never as obvious to me as it was to, say, Jean Chrétien that Harper was getting the balance wrong on China in 2006-08. Chrétien’s own government struggled with similar debates over rights vs. prosperity. Nuclear tests in India in 1998 led Lloyd Axworthy to put Canada-India relations in a deep freeze. His successor John Manley reversed the policy in 2001. If it’s obvious to you which of the two men was right, maybe you should take over this blog.

Harper didn’t change his China policy in a vacuum. After the 2008-09 economic crisis, you have to find your economic growth where you can get it. That’s the argument Carney and DFAIT have been making to Harper, and now it’s the argument he’s making to everyone else.





Harper’s secret Asia policy: much like his public Asia policy

  1. I saw the CBC story on the National and I was a little confused myself. Couldn’t figure out what the news was, aside from the existence of a secret document that confirmed what was already blindingly obvious. It’s as if someone leaked a “secret plan” confirming the government’s unwavering support for spending on polling and communications.

  2. It’s also fascinating to see the strategic moves in this direction that young Trudeau is starting to stake out for himself. Is it way too early to see a Harper/Trudeau squeeze play on the horizon? I too think Harper may have finally got the right message on the economy, only he’s going at it, as always, like a coss between 50 year old virgin who’s won a all in ticket to a 24 hour knocking shop extravaganza, and tin pot 7 year old tyrant who doesn’t have, never did have, the faintest idea how to play nice with others.

    Can Harper carry his party that far; can Trudeau his? Certainly he has raised the eyebrows of greenie liberals like me. How will he square support for the oilsands and resource extraction with more protection for the environment than Harper’s vandals and wreckers can abide? And what of Tom? Interesting days lie ahead, no doubt.

    • The oil sands are not destroying the environment. Obama’s blue state thermal coal, which is being exported faster and faster, in ever larger amounts, to Europe and Asia is.

      Even at anticipated rates of oil sands production a generation from now, the carbon emissions from the oil sands will be just 10% of the current emissions from coal-powered electricity generation in the United States. This does not even include all the US thermal coal being burned overseas.

      Stop the US coal railroads of death to the coasts. Not oil sands pipelines.

      Oil sands oil will lower global oil prices, which will lower global natural gas prices, which are tied to global oil prices, which will lower global usage of coal in favor of natural gas.

      Oil sands oil is a net environmental positive.

      Look at the forest. Not a few trees. There is a bigger picture.

      • They are both extremely worrisome, while coal exports are worth looking at your tarsands bit is becoming tiresome.

  3. It is amazing how listless MPs and government can be. Four years after an economic crisis in Canada, and one that is still ongoing in Europe and other parts of world, the Canadian government has finally gotten around to leaking a milquetoast document that says trade is urgent to growth. I have long wondered what does the PM do in a day? What do they spend their time doing in fancy office? Why do our MPs enjoy nothing more than standing around with their thumbs up bums and minds in neutral?

    One of the most unpleasant aspects of being PM or top cabinet member is that you have to wine and dine murderous dictators from other countries. Trade with other countries is good for Canadians, and for foreigners we trade with. Canada should focus on trade with Asian countries – particularly India – but I think our relations with China are changing. North American businesses are struggling to operate ethically in China so they are moving their firms to other cheaper countries in Asia or relocating back to North America.

  4. Is Harper going to start sounding like Cameron soon?

    Daily Telegraph ~ Nov 19 2012:
    Speaking at the CBI Conference David Cameron told business leaders that Britain was in the “economic equivalent of war” and said the government would be quicker because “in this global race you are either quick or you’re dead”.

    At the annual conference in London, the prime minister said the government needed to throw everything it had at winning the global race.

    “When this country was at war in the 40s, Whitehall underwent a revolution,” he said.

    “Normal rules were circumvented. Convention was thrown out. As one historian put it, everything was thrown at the overriding purpose of beating Hitler.

  5. The rejection of Keystone XL (as then currently configured) was the seminal event and milestone.

    Canada – pre-XL and post-XL.

    Thank Obama.

    • That does seem to be the point at which Harper – depending on your pov – either panicked or simply did a nifty 3 point turn, direction China. It also made him look like he was an big oil sock puppet.