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.