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Canada set to become strategic partner with ASEAN bloc, symbolizing trade progress

OTTAWA — Canada's status within the Indo-Pacific region is set to get a boost as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations prepares to make Ottawa its latest strategic partner when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits Indonesia.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, right, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talk during the G20 Leaders' Dinner at the Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park, in Badung, Bali, Indonesia on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, during the G20 Leaders Summit. Canada's status within the Indo-Pacific region is about to be elevated, as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is set to make the country its latest strategic partner. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Canada's status within the Indo-Pacific region is set to get a boost as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations prepares to make Ottawa its latest strategic partner when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits Indonesia.

The move by the organization is a symbolic gesture that recognizes Canada's expanded presence in the region and reflects the progress being made on a Canada-ASEAN free-trade agreement. 

The partnership will be ratified when Trudeau is in Jakarta on Tuesday and Wednesdayalongside Trade Minister Mary Ng.

Trudeau left Ottawa Sunday evening with his son Xavier.

During his visit, he will meet with Indonesian President Joko Widodo to discuss fighting climate change, food security and advancing economic ties — part of which includes energy production and trade.

The launch of the ASEAN-Canada strategic partnership will take place on Wednesday, with Trudeau also expected to deliver remarks. 

"The ASEAN believes engagement with Canada is much deeper than it perhaps used to be," Wayne Farmer, president of the Canada-ASEAN Business Council, said in an interview from Jakarta, Indonesia. 

"We trading more, we're engaging more, and it's a good thing to see for us. It's another little incremental step in the right direction." 

The ASEAN bloc, consisting of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, has been strengthening its ties to Canada for years.

Despite not being a strategic partner up until this visit, the bloc began negotiating a free trade agreement with Canada in 2021. Farmer, who is involved in those discussions, said talks are progressing well.

Another round of negotiations is expected later this month, with parties agreeing to finalize a deal by 2025. 

Farmer said it's unusual to see Canada granted this trading opportunity because others such as the United States and European Union — already strategic partners with ASEAN — have been lobbying for their own trade negotiations with the bloc.

"We certainly did pull off a coup in being selected," said Farmer. 

The Indo-Pacific is Canada's second-largest merchandise export market after the United States, with annual two-way trade valued at $270 billion last year.

But Gaphel Kongtsa, director of international policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said a top priority for local businesses is reducing trade barriers within the region. 

Canada's merchandise trade with ASEAN grew by nearly 29 per cent in 2022, with agribusiness being one of the largest economic sectors.

"There's a real need for Canadian talent and the goods it can supply for the region," said Kongtsa. 

The need has grown following economic disruption brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which also amplified calls in the Indo-Pacific for an accelerated energy transition.

"These regions are running significant coal as their source of power, and to me the best thing Canada can do to help bring down global emissions is to get countries that are on coal to transition into these other forms of energy," said Goldy Hyder, CEO of the Business Council of Canada. 

ASEAN sees Canada and its companies as allies in providing the technology, services and products it needs to address food insecurity, green energy transition and building smart cities, Farmer said. 

"There's a balance out here, particularly with developing nations, of continuing to grow their economy, lift their people into the middle class and into economic prosperity with an energy transition to mitigate environmental impacts," Farmer said. 

Government officials say it's an overarching theme Trudeau will address when in Jakarta: driving climate action while building economic growth. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2023. 

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press