Prime Minister Harper begins an official visit to Thailand today. The visit celebrates the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. It also marks the 35th anniversary of Canada's relationship with The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Thailand is a founding member of ASEAN created in 1967. Thailand is also the official coordinator of Canada-ASEAN relations for the 2009-12 period.
ASEAN is important for Canada. At a combined GDP of 1.7 trillion -- higher than India's -- it is the ninth largest economy in the world. Its 600 million people constitute a large and attractive market for Canada's exports.
Yet, Canada's relations with ASEAN have lagged behind those of other major Asia Pacific countries. For example total Canada-ASEAN trade of about $15 billion pales in comparison with the total Australia-ASEAN trade, of over $90 billion. ASEAN has signed a free trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand. The United States has significantly increased its engagement with ASEAN under the Obama administration.
The U.S. and Russia have joined the East Asian Summit (EAS), a multilateral grouping that now includes all the key players of the Asia Pacific region, except Canada.
One exception to this policy of Asian neglect is Canada's decision last year to enter into the negotiations on the U.S.-sponsored Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which seeks to create a comprehensive multilateral trade grouping that meets the highest standards of trade liberalisation.
During his visit to Thailand, Harper should try to make up for lost time. While the focus of the Harper visit is on trade, especially boosting Canadian exports to ASEAN in the agriculture, mining, and energy sectors, he should also address political and diplomatic issues. He should seek Thailand's help in getting Canada into the EAS.
ASEAN is set to become an economic community by 2015. Although the full implementation of it might be delayed somewhat, this gives Canada an opportunity to increase its presence in this large and lucrative market.
Then there is the issue of Myanmar/Burma. The political opening up of Burma, a large and resource- rich nation which will assume the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, is a significant development for regional security in Asia. Following Foreign Affairs Minister Baird's visit to that country earlier this month, Harper should consult with the governments of Thailand (and Japan and South Korea, the two other countries he is visiting on this tour), to explore ways for helping the reform process unfolding in Burma.
ASEAN is a critical role to play in ensuring that there is no backsliding on the reforms in Myanmar. The Obama administration has already started easing some sanctions on Burma. Canada should also look carefully at the political situation there to adjust its policy.