World News

Trudeau Arrives in Cambodia for ASEAN Summit as Canada Seeks Deeper Indo-Pacific Ties

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has touched down in Cambodia for a summit aimed at deepening economic ties with Southeast Asia, a region where Canada’s engagement has been sporadic.

Trudeau is in Phnom Penh for the leaders’ summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a bloc of 10 countries that includes some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

His first day will include a commemorative event to mark Canada’s 45 years of relations with ASEAN, just as the group negotiates a free−trade agreement with Canada.

The visit comes as Canada tries forming tighter bonds with Asian countries, to find alternatives to China’s growing assertiveness. ASEAN as a bloc already makes up Canada’s sixth largest trading partner.

A majority of ASEAN’s population is under 30, buoyed by a rising middle class in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, and cheap labour that has companies relocating jobs from China to places like Vietnam and the Philippines.

As for Cambodia, Canada is one of its top trading partners, with bilateral trade amounting to $1.82 billion last year. Some 98 percent of that involved goods Cambodia sold to Canada, such as garments and footwear, in exchange for just $38.5 million in Canadian goods, such as vehicle parts and artificial fur.

Trade between the two countries has ballooned despite a limited diplomatic presence. In 2009, the Harper government closed Canada’s embassy in Phnom Penh, downgrading it to a consular office. At the time, Ottawa cited a “serious examination of Canada’s current diplomatic representation abroad,” but many chalked the move up to budget cuts.

Wayne Farmer, head of the Canada−ASEAN Business Council, says it’s just one example of Ottawa falling behind the U.S., Australia, Britain and France in establishing strong trade ties with the region.

“It is the farthest part of the world from Canada; it’s farther than Africa, it’s farther than North Asia and farther than Europe. It’s not that surprising that we would be latecomers,” said Farmer.

“But in the world of today with communication and transportation as they are, that’s also not as much of an excuse.”

Farmer said Canada used to have a large presence in ASEAN countries decades ago, in the post−colonial period of the 1960s, as a major aid partner.

Canada is still renowned in the region for taking a leading role in a global effort in the 1990s to clean up landmines.

And yet, Canada pulled back from the region just as some of the countries had crossed the threshold into being considered developed, and started to become economic heavyweights.

“We did have a reputation as the end of being in−and−out of the markets, as fairweather friends, and doing some strange things,” said Farmer, who is based in Singapore.

“It would have been the natural transition to go from assistance with development to then developing business.”

Still, Canada’s private sector has a growing presence in the region, with Canadian pension funds investing across the region. Insurance companies like Manulife and Sun Life are household names in ASEAN countries like the Philippines. One of Cambodia’s largest banks, ABA, is owned by Montreal−based National Bank.

Farmer argues Ottawa has made it harder to build on these ties. Canada requires a visa for business travellers from each ASEAN country, and upheld some of the strictest COVID−19 travel rules.

Immigration processing backlogs have delayed student visas, including for some who were halfway through their degree in Canada, and Farmer says Ottawa risks losing students to places like Australia.

The Canadian Press


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