Canada is a trading nation to its core and our agreements with the United States, Mexico and the European Union are testimony to our desire — indeed, our need — to reach far beyond our borders to seek trading partnerships.
Many Canadians are familiar with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Canada’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union, but flying below the national radar is the huge potential of a free trade agreement with the ten-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
On an official visit to the Philippines last month, I led Canada’s delegation to the 38th General Assembly of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA). Delegates discussed a wide range of issues over the course of the assembly — including disaster management, combating terrorism and human trafficking, just to name a few. When holding a meeting with these ten ASEAN nations, the conversation turned to asking the question, ‘How can free trade between Canada and this fast-growing region be strengthened?’
The ASEAN region — Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — boasts a population of more than 600 million people and a nominal GDP of 2.31 trillion. This region is fast becoming a hotspot for global growth and investment, as many countries continue to shift their gaze east.
Canada already has a significant trading position among these nations and ASEAN members are collectively our sixth largest trading partner, to the tune of $21.6 billion as of last year.
The economies of ASEAN stand out as being increasingly important to Canada, across a range of sectors, including oil and gas, telecommunications, financial services and consumer goods.
So the potential for a free trade deal with ASEAN nations — and the opportunity it would offer Canada to build on that already solid relationship — needs to be our next free trade frontier.
And while the notion of a free trade agreement between Canada and ASEAN is not a new one — the idea has been tentatively discussed before — its attractiveness continues to grow. Beyond this being in our interest, over the course of the assembly it became quite apparent during our meeting that the desire for a free trade agreement is mutual.
Beyond our dynamic trade relationship, Canada’s unique history and development has given our country many tools that are useful to the region. Regional integration, interfaith dialogue, transnational policing and counterterrorism, as well as disaster risk reduction, are among the insights we are able to share.
Moreover, Canada takes great pride in its diversity and multicultural fabric, as well as in the benefits it derives from welcoming communities from around the world. This has helped Canada develop remarkable people-to-people ties with Southeast Asia. Since the 1970s, more than one million people from Southeast Asia have made their home in Canada.
As this year marks the 40th anniversary of Canada becoming a dialogue partner of ASEAN, I can only look forward to the fifth decade of partnership between Canada and ASEAN with enthusiasm.
The tightening of economic, social, and political relations with the ASEAN region truly holds great promise for a brighter future for Canada.
Tobias C. Enverga is a senator representing Ontario. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce, the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, as well as the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.