Sep 25, 2008

World - Why Asia should matter to Canadian voters

Ramesh Thakur
It is because Asia will intrude significantly on issues critical to Canada’s welfare and security.
In the general election next month, Canadian voters should pay more attention to the political parties’ foreign policy platforms than they do normally. As the current market turmoil shows only too vividly, all economics is global. Yet politics remain stubbornly local. Once elected, however, prime ministers spend much of their time grappling with foreign challenges. On the big issues, it is global forces that will determine Canada’s fate. Because Asia will intrude significantly on issues critical to Canada’s welfare and security, its Asia policy needs to be publicly debated.
The structure of Asia’s power relations rests on five powers: America, China, Japan, Russia and India. U.S. influence and prestige have fallen due to Iraq’s demonstration of the limits to American power, its perceived hostility to the Muslim world and its relative retreat from engagement with Asia, but it remains the most influential external actor. Japan’s has continued to decline, albeit slowly over the decades rather than precipitously as with the U.S. Russia is marking time, still. India is starting to recapture the region’s and world attention and interest. The real winner is China with an ascendant economy, growing poise and self-confidence and an expanding array of soft power assets in regional diplomacy.
The two major parties seem equally shy of debating policy towards Afghanistan where Canada has invested much blood and treasure. Ottawa seems to be more in denial about how badly the war is going than Washington, London and Paris. On most objective measures — strikes by the insurgents, numbers of coalition soldiers and Afghan civilians killed, the continuing restiveness among Afghans and foreign observers about lack of economic progress and public corruption — the Taliban are gathering strength, gaining in self-confidence and advancing in audacity.
Where to next? Is it wise to set rigid term limits to Canada’s involvement and risk inviting a self-generating momentum to failure? Is it callous to put soldiers in harm’s way in a doomed cause? The commitment to Afghanistan was made without full understanding of the region and the tasks to hand; it does not make sense to repeat the mistake. The stakes are too big and serious to take refuge in a risk-averse ostrich mentality and refuse to debate the challenges and policy choices.
The Taliban have regrouped in the sanctuary along Pakistan’s tribal areas, aided and abetted by sympathetic elements inside Pakistani intelligence, military and political circles. Foreign terrorists are also on the rise with a regional Talibanisation and a global terrorist agenda. Any NATO withdrawal would risk Afghanistan and Pakistan once again becoming launching pads for attacks on Western interests all over the world.
Time was when Kashmir was dubbed the most dangerous place on earth. In recent times that mantle has been claimed by Pakistan as the world’s terror central. According to the Washington-based National Counter Terrorism Centre, the number of terrorist incidents in Pakistan between January 1, 2004 and March 31, 2008 was 2,248, in which 2,813 people were killed and another 6,448 were wounded.
In the same period, the number of terrorist incidents in India was 3,906, in which 4,506 people were killed and more than 10,000 wounded. India’s terror toll in the last half decade has been second only to Iraq. This reality is yet to register in the public, media and political consciousness of the West, for whom India is the poster child of a stable and relaxed democracy in the third world. Imagine the consequences for the world, including Canada, if India was to join its neighbours — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal — in being put on the failing states watchlist.
In the meantime, though, India does represent a rare success story on both democracy and development. World income has doubled since 1980 and almost half a billion people have climbed out of poverty since 1990. The number of people living on less than one purchasing power dollar a day will likely halve by 2030. This will result from growth in South and East Asia, whose share of the poor will halve from 60 per cent. China’s and India’s growth could anchor stable economic performance in many other countries, offsetting the recurrent volatility of a suddenly vulnerable America and a still stagnant Japan.
There has also been a proliferation of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements and other preferential trading arrangements. Should we resign ourselves to the collapse of the Doha round of trade talks, which foundered on Chinese and Indian objections to the deal on offer, as the global regime, or should we try to broker a new deal?
The Olympics underlined the great gains being made by China. The organisation and facilities (track and field, swimming pool) of the games were stunning. China is no longer just the world’s factory. It is increasingly a global player. Democracy and human rights deficits are real; how best to promote these values while co-opting China as a force for the good in the world and muting it as a force for the bad? For the sake of better world governance, China must be engaged. Asians are better educated, better read, and better informed than ever. Double standards and hypocrisy in self-serving selective disengagement promote neither Canadian interests nor values.
The costs of not incorporating China and India will doom any global climate change regime to quick failure. A recommitment to multilateral activism is urgently required. That is true on the nuclear front as well. Whether it is Iran, Pakistan, the India-U.S. nuclear deal, or North Korea, the separate pursuits of non-proliferation with a sense of urgency and of disarmament at a far more relaxed pace have contributed to the gathering nuclear crisis. Should Canada not put its weight behind the efforts of Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn to abolish nuclear weapons within a realistic time frame and to severely curtail their numbers, deployments and doctrines in the meantime?
The mantle of being the most heavily militarised region — entailing massive armies, fortified and mined borders, heavy long-range weapons systems and nuclear weapons — has passed from central Europe during the Cold War to Northeast Asia today. Terrorist cells are feared to have taken deep root in parts of Southeast Asia, while Northeast Asia is the setting for such other non-traditional security concerns as worsening water and energy scarcity, environmental degradation and human trafficking.
The diplomatic challenges in Asia are how to dampen prospects for conflict among the major powers and promote cooperation instead; how to encourage policies by the major economic players that will cushion economic shocks for others and draw them into region-wide economic expansion and prosperity; how to promote trade policies, practices and arrangements that are inclusive, open and market-led but also fair and equitable; and how to cope with the growing list of non-traditional security threats like energy and water scarcity, drug and human trafficking, and pandemics.
Does Canada want a voice in answering these vital questions? If so, should Canadian voters not be seeking answers first from their political leaders during the campaign over the next four weeks?
(Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Distinguished Fellow, Centre for International Governance Innovation, Waterloo.)

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