PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled a slew of funding announcements in Cambodia on Saturday aimed at deepening economic and academic ties with Southeast Asia, after decades of sporadic engagement with the region.
"This is a generational shift," Trudeau told leaders gathered in Phnom Penh for a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"I am announcing concrete investments that are part of our commitment to this relationship," he said, before listing $333 million in new funding.
He was speaking at an event commemorating Canada's 45 years of relations with ASEAN, which comes as the group negotiates a free-trade agreement with Canada.
The bloc of 10 countries includes some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and the Liberals say they want to shift trade away from China over concerns that span human rights to intellectual property.
"There are no surprises; the cards are on the table and our goal is to be present in the region," Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told reporters in French.
Trudeau unveiled funding for closer ties in Southeast Asia, spread over the course of five years.
The largest chunk, $133 million, will involve feminist-focused development aid in ASEAN countries, a quarter of which will be earmarked for Canadian civil-society groups.
Ottawa will also spend $84.3 million for a new Shared Ocean Fund aimed at cracking down on illicit fishing in the region, and $40 million for an engagement fund that will help public servants as well as civil society do research on the Indo-Pacific region.
The Liberals are allocating $24 million for a private-sector centre to inform businesses of opportunities in Asia, and the same amount for the Asia-Pacific Foundation to operate an office on the continent. There is also funding to run educational exchanges and to help ASEAN counties partake in trade-deal negotiations with Canada.
Meanwhile, Trudeau’s office said ASEAN granted Canada status as a comprehensive strategic partnership, which is the highest tier of recognition for non-member countries. The U.S. and India were also granted this status Saturday, placing them alongside previously recognized partners Australia and China.
ASEAN as a bloc already makes up Canada’s sixth largest trading partner.
The majority of the population in ASEAN member countries is under 30, a demographic shift that's shaping economic opportunities in the region. A rising middle class is boosting countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, while the prospect of cheap labour 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 per cent of that involved goods Cambodia sold to Canada, such as garments and footwear, in exchange for just $38.5 million in Canadian goods like vehicle parts and artificial fur.
Trade between the two countries has ballooned despite a limited diplomatic presence. In 2009, the government of then prime minister Stephen Harper 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.
Trudeau met Saturday with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen but made no mention of re-opening an embassy, and Joly was vague on the idea.
"Our goal is to be more present in the region," she said in English, noting the Liberals have opened embassies in Africa after their Conservative predecessors had closed them.
Wayne Farmer, head of the Canada-ASEAN Business Council, said Ottawa is 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 area, 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.
Jeffrey Reeves, research director of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, said the West also hurt its reputation by doing little to allow developing countries to produce COVID-19 vaccines, such as through waving patents.
“China provided most of Asia with vaccines while the global West hoarded supplies and prevented technology transfers in overseas production,” he noted at a Nov. 1 panel.
“Those sort of things don't honestly go unnoticed and they are not easily forgotten.”
Reeves added that Canada’s constant rhetoric about a rules-based international order does not resonate in Southeast Asia, where polling suggests many have a favourable view of China and Russia.
“Not only are these priorities out of tune with one another, but they can actually be oppositional,” he said, arguing Canada is wanted for its commodities but not for “unwanted interference” in geopolitics.
Stéphanie Martel, a Queen’s University international-relations professor and leading expert on ASEAN, says Canada could instead play a role in building consensus on various issues.
She said Canada can build relationships with Southeast Asian countries by focusing on their individual trajectories, instead of painting them as under the thumb of China or the United States.
Martel says that comes down to “recognizing and respecting the fact that a lot of these countries do not fit neatly in these democratic versus authoritarian categories.”
In Cambodia, for example, Sen has reigned since 1985, and Human Rights Watch accuses his party of persecuting its political opposition.
The country is beset by corruption, limits on press freedom and human trafficking. China is helping upgrade Cambodia’s main naval base, which the U.S. sees as a threat to regional stability.
The ASEAN bloc is also dealing with an alarming human-rights situation in Myanmar, one of its 10 member states, where chaos has reigned since a February 2021 coup d'état by that country’s military.
The bloc has isolated Myanmar's leadership, but failed to reach consensus Friday on how to implement a peace plan developed months ago.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2022.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press