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 South Korea.
The visit will seek to high-light Canada’s desire to en-gage 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, a prime focus will be about getting Canadian oil and gas to one of the most energy-hungry parts of the world.
Harper will begin this latest swing through Asia by touching down in Bangkok on Thursday, where he will be greeted by a Thai government 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 counter-part are expected to announce the launch of a study that will assess the feasibility of a free-trade agreement between Canada and Thailand.
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 including a number of countries that have seen strong economic growth in recent years, Asean is be-coming an economic prize for developed countries seeking new markets.
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 victories for Canada, particularly as Japan is the world’s third-largest economy after the US and China.
Japan’s commitment to trade talks is a bit suspect, 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 economy after last year’s Fukushima crisis cast doubt on the future of nuclear power.
One of the early favourites to emerge, he said, is liquefied natural gas, of which Canada is an emerging powerhouse.
Japan is paying a steep price for gas from Qatar, Brunei and Australia when the price in North America is much lower, Woo said. Similar potential exists in South Korea, which is Harper’s final stop.
“The near-term potential is not China, which every-one seems to be so fixated on,” Woo said, “but it’s Japan and Korea. And it’s not oil, it’s natural gas.”