PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has landed in Cambodia for a summit aimed at deepening economic ties with Southeast Asia, a region where Canada’s involvement has been sporadic.
Prime Minister Trudeau is in Phnom Penh for the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a bloc of 10 countries containing the world’s fastest growing economies.
His first day will include commemorative events to mark Canada’s 45-year relationship with ASEAN, as well as the group negotiating a free trade agreement with Canada.
The visit comes at a time when Canada seeks to forge closer ties with Asian nations and find an alternative to China’s growing assertiveness. Her ASEAN as a bloc has already become Canada’s sixth largest trading partner.
The majority of ASEAN’s population is under the age of 30, fueled by a growing middle class in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, and cheap labor as companies move jobs from China to places such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
As for Cambodia, Canada is one of its largest trading partners, with bilateral trade reaching $1.82 billion last year. About 98% of that was related to goods such as clothing and footwear that Cambodia sold to Canada, while Canadian goods such as auto parts and artificial fur were just her $38.5 million.
Despite a limited diplomatic presence, trade between the two countries has soared. In 2009, the Harper administration closed the Canadian Embassy in Phnom Penh and downgraded it to a consulate. At the time, Ottawa said it would “seriously consider Canada’s current diplomatic representation abroad,” but many chalked up the move to budget cuts.
Wayne Farmer, president of the Canada-ASEAN Business Council, said Ottawa is just one example of lagging behind the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and France in establishing strong trade ties with the region.
“It’s the farthest part of the world from Canada. Farther than Africa, farther than North Asia, farther than Europe. It’s not all that surprising that we’re latecomers,” Farmer said.
“But in today’s world of communications and transportation, that’s no excuse either.”
Farmer said Canada had a strong presence in ASEAN countries as a major aid partner decades ago during the post-colonial era of the 1960s.
Canada is still famous in the region for playing a leading role in the global effort to clear landmines in the 1990s.
Yet just as some countries crossed the threshold of being considered developed and began to become economic heavyweights, Canada withdrew from the region.
“We’ve had a reputation as Fairweather’s friends at the end of the day in and out of the market, and doing some weird stuff,” said the Singapore-based Farmer.
“It would have been a natural progression to move from helping development to developing the business.”
Still, the Canadian private sector has a growing presence in the region, with Canadian pension funds investing across the region. Insurance companies such as Manulife and Sun Life are common names in her ASEAN countries such as the Philippines. His one of Cambodia’s largest banks, ABA, is owned by the Montreal-based National Bank.
Farmer claims Ottawa has made those relationships difficult to forge.Canada required visas for business travelers from ASEAN countries and upheld some of the strictest COVID-19 travel rules .
Farmer says Ottawa is at risk of losing students to places like Australia, with immigration backlogs delaying student visas, including those who were halfway through their degrees in Canada.