Political and economic uncertainty in Europe following the BREXIT vote and the escalation of rhetoric in the U.S. presidential election campaign are likely to be among the factors influencing a more positive attitude among Canadians towards Asia, says Eva Busza, vice-president, research and programs at the Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation (APF).
APF’s biennial national survey of Canadians’ views on Asia conducted in late June-early July this year showed that Canadians feel more connected and positive toward Asia than they did two years ago, and are more optimistic about future relations with the region.
Dr. Busza says there may be several reasons for this change in attitude including Canada’s new government that has been emphasizing the importance of diversifying the country’s international trade partners and the importance of Canadian engagement with Asia. The BREXIT vote and the U.S. election also may have had an impact.
“Europe and the U.S., our favoured partners, are no longer looking as stable as they did in 2014,” she adds. “In comparison, Asia is looking more predictable and therefore perhaps a safer partner.”
Dr. Busza also points out that at the end of 2013 and throughout 2014 there were a number of negative stories that probably affected Canadian attitudes to Asia including criticism around the CNOOC NEXEN deal, concern about the signing of the Foreign Investment Protection Act with China, news of the outsourcing of labour to Asia by Canadian banks, and the use of Chinese temporary labourers in Canadian mines.
But in spite of the improved sentiment towards Asia and a relatively positive view of private investment from Asia, the survey showed that Canadians remain distrustful of foreign state-owned enterprises (SOEs) investing in Canada.
That attitude does not surprize Dr. Busza, who says Canadians have a long-standing mistrust of state-owned enterprises, whether they are from China or from any other country.
“While our polling has not explored the reasons behind this concern, our informal consultations and other research suggests that these attitudes stem from a concern that these enterprises will be motivated by political as opposed to market incentives and that, particularly in the areas of strategic assets, could act in a way that is contrary to Canadian national interests,” she says.
Dr. Busza adds that it’s interesting to note that the APF survey shows that Canadian attitudes towards Chinese investment from private companies is much more positive: 51 per cent of respondents this year said they would be in favour of a private company from China trying to buy a controlling stake in a major Canadian company, as opposed to 11 per cent being in favour if the purchaser is a state-owned enterprise.
As was to be expected, the survey confirmed that Canadians hold strong and consistent views on human rights issues in Asia, with 51 per cent saying they were willing to risk lost commercial opportunities if human rights concerns exist with a potential partner in Asia.
Dr. Busza does not see a contradiction between improved perceptions of Asia and a high concern for human rights in the region.
“Support of free trade and support for human rights are core Canadian values,” she says. “The real policy question is how do you advance both. Providing assistance that helps bolster the legal system, or encourages good governance practices, is likely to be more effective over the long term in supporting human rights than a unilateral decision by Canada to stop trading with Asia.”
She adds that it’s also important to keep in mind that Asia is not monolithic and that there is significant variation throughout the region with respect to their human rights records, and Canada’s policies should take these differences into account.
Overall, Dr. Busza says the survey findings suggest that Canadians are more receptive to engaging with Asia and are more likely to support initiatives by the government to deepen our relationship with the region.
“This is particularly true when we look at the increase in support for cultural and educational exchanges,” she adds. “It also extends to increased support for free trade agreements, particularly with countries like Japan, India and the ASEAN region.”