KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Stephen Harper touched down Friday in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur for a two-day stay, becoming the first Canadian prime minister to formally visit the Southeast Asian country in 17 years.
Harper is en route to a summit of Pacific Rim country leaders in Bali, where trade and commerce — and likely the spectacle of American political gridlock — will dominate the agenda.
This year’s annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group, or APEC, is seen as an opportunity to help push negotiations on a Pacific trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a grouping of 12 countries, all of whom belong to the larger, 21-country APEC family.
And with Malaysia among those negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a number of APEC leaders planned to use Kuala Lumpur as a skipping stone before the summit on the Indonesian island of Bali.
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday and Chinese flags still festooned the airport VIP arrival area when the less celebrated Canadian delegation landed late Friday night.
U.S. President Barack Obama was supposed to visit Malaysia and the Philippines prior to Bali, but the budgetary impasse in Congress and resulting U.S. government shutdown caused him to cancel the entire trip, APEC included.
Harper is essentially waving the Canadian flag and promoting business connections during a light itinerary in Kuala Lumpur. Human smuggling and security issues are also on the agenda.
The prime minister will sign a bilateral security agreement with the Malaysian government.
He’ll also meet with Canadian business leaders who have operations in the country, ranging from beleaguered smartphone maker BlackBerry and several major financial institutions to aircraft maker Bombardier and Talisman Energy.
A Canadian representative of Petronas-Progress, the state-owned Malaysian oil and gas company that invested more than $5 billion in the Alberta oilsands last year, will also be part of Saturday’s roundtable discussion.
Two-way merchandise trade between Canada and Malaysia totalled about $3 billion last year, marginally behind Thailand as Canada’s second largest trading partner in Southeast Asia.
By contrast, China and Malaysia share a trade relationship worth $100 billion a year — small wonder, then, that Harper’s visit is being overshadowed by President Xi’s first state visit.
Harper will be formally welcomed to Malaysia only on Sunday, after the Chinese delegation’s departure.
The last sitting Canadian prime minister to visit Malaysia was Jean Chretien in 1996.
On Sunday, Harper moves on to Bali, a three-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, with the main leaders’ summit events taking place Monday and Tuesday.
While trade is at the heart of the APEC agenda, concerns over the economic impact of any prolonged U.S. government shutdown may rattle the emerging economies, which are already beset by global uncertainty over rising interest rates, currency fluctuations and an outflow of capital.