Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc, told The Canadian Press in an exclusive interview Thursday that as Canada pursues deeper ties with Asia, it has to focus on more than just trade and investment, and should take a more active role in security issues.
Canada should leverage its good reputation as a "soft power" to help mediate some of the intermittent disputes that flare up in the region, perhaps emulating Norway, he said. Norway has been an active mediator in the Middle East, the Balkans and Sri Lanka.
"What Canada can do is to transform its expertise in those areas of peacekeeping, peace-building into a more mediating role. A country like Norway has been very active and engaged. Canada has been less than Norway, maybe by choice," Surin said in Ottawa, where he was meeting several Conservative cabinet ministers.
"It has to be a package, an integrated approach."
Surin would also like to see Canadian troops taking part in military training manoeuvres in the region, such as Cobra Gold, in which 10,000 troops from the United States and several South Asian countries took part in simulated amphibious beach assaults and disaster relief earlier this year.
"Canada knows that it has been rather absent from the region," he said.
"Maybe Canada should be more present at these kinds of region activities, for peace, for reconciliation, for security, for mutual confidence."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made forging deeper economic links with Asia a priority for his government.
Boosting trade and investment with ASEAN — a group that does not include China, India, Japan or South Korea — represents one way of broader engagement with the region.
Surin said ASEAN's 10 member countries are anxious to deepen trade and investment, as well looking for new opportunities in education, health and technology.
"We are able to be on the supply lines of every factory in India and China. In that sense ASEAN is in the middle of the growth centre," he said.
But the broader region is also the scene of simmering tensions, including the current territorial dispute between China and Japan over an island chain in the South China Sea.
Surin called the situation "worrisome because they are our major partners," adding: "We certainly would like them to be able to get along."
Because of Asia's rising influence, unresolved disputes could effect growth across the globe, including the recovery from the current economic crisis, he said.
That's why steps have to be taken in various regional forums to find diplomatic solutions.
It's up to Canada, he said, to gauge how big a player it wants to be.
"The decision will have to made here in how much Canada wants to be part of the process to contribute to confidence building, reconciliation in the region, and trying to restrain all parties and not allow the situation into open conflict," said Surin.
"Because it's going to affect the rest of the word."
In the case of the China-Japan dispute, Surin said he has no illusions about Canada being able to make a difference.
"It would be a rather difficult issue between China and Japan. Territorial disputes, historic mistrust, lack of mutual confidence. It's rather deep," he said.
But everyone has to find ways to deal with the continuing rise of China.
"There used to be a notion of peaceful rise of China. But apparently what we are seeing is, is not very restrained," he said.
"What we are seeing is (China) rather actively engaged in activities projecting its own presence, its own power, its own influence over the environment and the landscape that it perceives to belong to its own sphere of influence."
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird noted Thursday that Canada has had a "strong and vibrant dialogue" with ASEAN in 35 years of relations. He pointed to a Canada-ASEAN joint declaration on trade and investment, the recent creation of the Canada-ASEAN Business Council as well as a $10-million commitment to fund "co-operative activities" in the next three years.
Surin said the co-operation has the potential to run much deeper.
"Canada has decided, I think, a long time ago that soft power — before the word soft power came into being, into vogue — should be its approach to the global community. It has been very much welcomed on the issue of human rights, on the issue of democracy, on the issue of open society, the issue of gender equality," he said.
"You can play a backroom role or a subtle mediating role with less direct involvement or interest in the region like other countries. There is that credibility. There is that room, that space."
Also on HuffPost