VancouverSun, 20 March 2012
OTTAWA - A month after engaging in some high-profile panda diplomacy in China, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is heading back to Asia, this time to talk trade with Thailand, Japan and, to a lesser degree, South Korea.
The visit will seek to highlight Canada's desire to engage not just China and India, which have figured prominently on the Conservative government's agenda, but the entirety of this dynamic and fast-emerging region.
As with China, however, a prime focus will be about getting Canadian oil and gas to one of the most energy-hungry parts of the world.
"There's a lot of demand for Canadian resources," Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall said Tuesday. "I do expect that we will be talking energy when we meet with our partners on the Asia-Pacific side of the world."
Harper will begin this latest swing through Asia by touching down in Bangkok on Thursday, where he will be greeted with open arms by a Thai government that is eager to expand trade ties with Canada.
"We see the potential in Canada, and Canada sees the potential in Thailand as well," said an official from the Thai Embassy in Ottawa. "Canada holds big promises for the Thai economy."
Harper and his Thai counterpart are expected to announce the launch of a study that will assess the feasibility of a free-trade agreement between Canada and the southeast Asian nation.
The Canadian hope is that a deal with Thailand will offer a springboard for the expansion of trade relations with the rest of the 10-country Association of South East Asian Nations, of which Thailand is a member.
With a combined population of 601 million and counting a number of countries that have seen strong economic growth in recent years, ASEAN is quickly becoming an economic prize for developed countries like Canada that are seeking new markets.
In return, says John Casella, head of the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Thailand is looking to build on a recent $2.3-billion investment by the country's state-run oil firm into Alberta's oilsands and facilitate the movement of other resources like lumber from Canada to feed its growing economic engine.
Similarly, Harper is expected to announce the launch of free trade talks with Japan and the lifting of a ban on certain Canadian beef exports when he meets Japanese officials in Tokyo on Sunday.
Both announcements will be held up as major victories for Canada, particularly as Japan is the world's third-largest economy after the U.S. and China, and was a major destination for Canadian beef exports until BSE closed the market in 2003.
Japan's commitment to trade talks is a bit suspect, however, particularly as it has refused to indicate whether it plans to move ahead with the opening up of its agriculture industry, said Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada president Yuen Pau Woo.
The real potential, said Woo, is Canada's role in helping Japan resolve how to power its massive economy after last year's Fukushima crisis cast doubt on the future of nuclear power.
"What may be an even bigger story than free trade talks is the dramatic reconfiguration of Japan's energy situation," he said. "They're actively reconsidering the nuclear option and looking for alternative sources of energy, all of which requires imports."
One of the early favourites to emerge, he said, is liquefied natural gas, of which Canada is an emerging powerhouse, particularly with recent discoveries of shale gas.
Japan is paying a steep price for gas from Qatar, Brunei and Australia when the price of natural gas in North America is much lower, Woo said, which is why Japanese companies have been investing billions in Canada. Similar potential exists in South Korea, which is Harper's third and final stop during this Asian tour.
"The near-term potential is not China, which everyone seems to be so fixated on," Woo said, "but it's Japan and Korea. And it's not oil, it's natural gas."
In both Tokyo and Seoul, Harper is also expected to pitch the benefits of nuclear power.
Not by coincidence, Canada is one of the largest uranium producers in the world, and during his trip to China, the prime minister signed an agreement to increase uranium exports to the Middle Kingdom.
It remained unclear Tuesday whether Harper will be meeting one-on-one with his South Korean counterpart during his two-day visit to Seoul, which starts next Monday. Free trade talks were launched in 2005, but have largely ground to a standstill, though a recent move by South Korea to lift a ban on Canadian beef exports has raised some hopes.
Rather, the prime minister will be joining other world leaders for a high-level summit in which the future of nuclear power will be one of a number of topics.
source: the vancouver sun