In political and economic circles, B.C.’s geographic place as Canada’s gateway to Asia would seem to be its most valuable asset. Over the years, billions of dollars have been spent on expanding the country’s transportation network to accelerate the movement of goods to and from Canada’s key trading partners in the Pacific.
But Yuen Pau Woo, president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, says the focus on goods movement alone is short-sighted because it misses the equally important social and cultural opportunities that the region’s geography has created.
“Everyone talks about Vancouver as a gateway as if it’s something new. It’s been a gateway for 125 years since the railroad was finished,” he told Business in Vancouver. “The challenge is to create a hub of activity within the gateway itself. The importance of the gateway is not what passes through it, it’s what happens within it.”
David Emerson, former federal international trade and foreign affairs minister, has remained a strong advocate of Woo’s point of view for years.
“I’m a great believer that the transportation and logistics system is the necessary core for building our capacity as a gateway, but you’ve got to have more than that, and Pau gets that. He realizes that you’ve got to take advantage of our cultural assets, the diverse and substantive Asian communities we have here.”
Much of Woo’s work since he took the foundation’s helm in 2005 has been focused on helping Canadians appreciate and capitalize on the multifaceted dimensions of Canada’s deep connections and relations with Asia. Starting as research fellow in 1996, Woo was the foundation’s vice-president of research and its chief economist for nearly a decade, contributing to its growing research focus.
Born in Malaysia and raised in Singapore, Woo has spent much of his career in policy and research. Prior to joining the foundation, he worked as a consultant on international marine affairs and was an economist for Singapore’s central bank and the city-state’s sovereign wealth fund.
“Pau is one of those people who are not just smart and analytical, but very articulate and measured,” said Emerson. “He has great interpersonal skills, which is really important these days, especially for the Asia Pacific Foundation, where you’re trying to reach out and engage people in thinking about Asia.”
“He has the professional credentials as an economist and the cultural and small-p political background of Asia,” said Jack Austin, a lawyer and retired senator who was instrumental in the creation of the foundation in 1984. “He’s a person of intense focus and has made himself a presence, not just in Canada but in Asia.”
Woo’s work has been helped by China’s continued economic rise. As the People’s Republic has become an increasingly significant economic power, so, too, has Canadian awareness of Asia’s growing prominence in the global economy.
An annual survey published by the foundation in April found that half of Canadians see China’s growing economic power as an opportunity, up 7% from a year ago.
According to the latest data from BC Stats, while China has become B.C.’s second-largest export destination, the Asia Pacific region overtook the U.S. as the largest export destination for B.C. goods last year.
“Even five years ago, when I went into offices of CEOs or association heads, I’d spend the first half an hour saying why Asia is important,” said Woo. “Today, I don’t have to do that.”
But despite Canada’s growing acceptance of Asia as a key trading region, Canadians still harbour doubt and suspicion over Asian companies taking a greater ownership stake in Canadian businesses and resources. More than 80% of Canadians disliked the idea of state-controlled companies from China or India taking a controlling interest in a Canadian company. Nearly 38% were opposed to Canada pursuing free-trade agreements with China, India and South Korea.
Woo argues that even if Canadians hold these views, they should still take a hard look at how Asia’s growing economic rise will affect them. This remains challenging given the vast majority (71%) of Canadians that still don’t see themselves as part of the Asia Pacific region.
To get a better sense of Canadian views, the foundation launched a national conversation on Asia in April 2011 aimed at getting Canadians to talk about Asia’s impact on their lives. So far, Ontarians have expressed the most skepticism and fear about the rise of Asia; B.C. residents had the highest degree of support and orientation toward greater Asian engagement.
B.C.’s survey results don’t surprise Woo, who said that Metro Vancouver has become one of the most Asian regions in North America. About 40% of the region’s population has an Asian ethnic background. But unlike their counterparts in San Francisco, Seattle, or even Toronto, Vancouver’s Asian communities have maintained strong ties with their countries of origin.
“That’s a unique quality that we’ve developed here,” Woo said. “What we’ve seen in Vancouver is an Asian population that’s substantial in number and self-confident in its own identity while maintaining an ongoing connection with Asia.”
But Woo said Canadians are not tapping those deep relationships spanning the Pacific and therefore not benefiting from the opportunities they offer for promoting wealth creation, job development and entrepreneurship.
“Our first message is Asia is not ‘over there.’ It’s right here. And one of our challenges is for Canada to reclaim and embrace its place in the Asia Pacific region as a key member of that community and for Vancouver, in particular, to rise to its calling as the most Asian city outside of Asia.”
For years, Woo has remained one of the staunchest advocates for the creation of a Vancouver-based Centre of Contemporary Asia to serve as a cultural, research and networking hub.
As a member of the Asia Society of New York’s global council, adviser to the Shanghai World Trade Organization Affairs Consultation Centre and other international, national and local organizations, Woo noted that some of the most prominent Asian leaders in business, the arts and education have made Vancouver their home. And yet, the city has done little to tap that world-class talent and expertise.
He added that more needs to be done to invite immigrants to participate in the life of the community.
“One of the great challenges for the city is to create an environment that these new Canadians are willing to embrace. Part of that is changing the ethos of the city, to identify clearly as a city with special Asian characteristics.”
Without more initiatives to make the region more inclusive to a growing proportion of immigrants, Woo said that ethnic groups could settle into an unhealthy pattern of missed opportunities and increased segregation.
“You can’t change things overnight, but the first thing you need to do is get them to feel they have a stake in the evolution of the city. If not for them, then for their children and grandchildren.” •