Canada not ready for ‘Asian Century’

Many expect Asia — and especially China — to be the world’s economic sweet spot in the 21st Century. Yet Canada is ill-prepared to take advantage of the resulting opportunities, says a member of a task force that analyzed this country’s readiness for the “Asian century.”

Many expect Asia — and especially China — to be the world’s economic sweet spot in the 21st Century. Yet Canada is ill-prepared to take advantage of the resulting opportunities, says a member of a task force that analyzed this country’s readiness for the “Asian century.”

Victor Rabinovitch was among a group of Asian experts who shared their insights at a forum at Red Deer College on Thursday. A professor in Queen’s University’s school of policy studies, he recently served on an Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada task force that considered whether Canadians have the skills, knowledge and capabilities to engage productively with Asian countries.

The task force’s findings are scheduled for release on Nov. 5, but Rabinovitch offered a sneak peak at the Red Deer event, which was organized by Central Alberta: Access Prosperity, Red Deer College and the government of Alberta.

“Our main finding is that Canada has islands of innovation and creativity, but we’re a long way from a serious commitment to being better informed, more experienced and more capable of engaging with Asia,” said Rabinovitch. “There’s a long way to go.”

In several of Canada’s biggest urban centres, the task force found school systems’ language and awareness training related to China to be “scattered and disconnected,” he said. This extended to universities, where there is a lack of funding and focus.

The exception is Edmonton, said Rabinovitch, where schools have a co-ordinated and long-term approach to language and cultural training. The University of Alberta even provides credits to students who have completed language immersion courses in high school.

Rabinovitch also praised Alberta for its recent creation of an Asia Advisory Council, whose mandate is to provide advice and recommendations to the minister of international and intergovernmental relations.

“Alberta really is ahead of the pack in thinking, talking and teaching about issues of Asia competence, and particularly in talking about language skills and engagement with China.”

But global competition for the Asian pie will be stiff. Rabinovitch described how Australia, New Zealand, the United States and European counties are aggressively positioning their populations to take advantage of the opportunities there.

He pointed out that the number of Canadian students and teachers who study or work abroad is indicative of how Canada is lagging behind its counterparts.

“We’re aware of how, amongst post-secondary students in Canada, only three per cent — only three out of 100 — are currently taking up study-abroad, work-abroad opportunities.

“Australia has double that percentage; Germany is at 30 per cent and is targeting 50 per cent of post-secondary students doing study or work abroad.”

In the United States, he noted, a “100,000 Strong” initiative was launched in 2010 with a goal of sending 100,000 Americans to study in China by 2014.

Rabinovitch also took part in a panel discussion moderated by International and Intergovernmental Relations Minister Cal Dallas. The other members were Teresa Woo-Paw, associate minister of International and Intergovernmental Relations and chair of Alberta’s Asia Advisory Council; Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta; and Margaret Cornish, Bennett Jones Commercial Consulting’s Beijing-based senior advisor for China.

Woo-Paw said a balanced approach is needed to prepare Canada for the Asian century, including public policies dedicated to developing the necessary competencies. She added that Alberta has much to offer China, and other countries.

“We have five heritage sites that the world wants to experience, we have agriculture, forestry, and know-how and advanced technology.”

Cornish said the issue may be whether Canada has the will to transform itself into an Asia-ready country.

“We conceive of ourselves as an Atlantic nation and a continental-linked nation, so turning to Asia is an exceedingly difficult task. It’s a transformation in our identity.”

Houlden agreed that Canada’s economy has a north-south orientation, with some focus on the Atlantic as well. But it’s an economic necessity that this change, he said.

“It’s not a question of should we or should we not engage in Asia; if we want to maintain our prosperity we have no choice. It’s simple reality.”

A second panel discussion featured Tom Walter, vice-chair of the Asia Advisory Council; Peter Sutherland, president of the Canada-India Business Council; Robert Francis, president and CEO of Agriteam Canada; and John Zahary, president and CEO of Sunshine Oilsands. It was moderated by Cornish.

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