Securing the Philippines’ support for eventual Canadian membership at the East Asia Summit was savvy and has opened the door to deeper Canada-ASEAN engagement.

Development and economic opportunity are at the heart of any win-win scenario for Canada-ASEAN relations. Trudeau and his cabinet correctly perceive that there is much to be gained in expanding Canadian trade via a forum in which more than half of the global economy is represented. Indeed, free trade is in many ways the leitmotif of ASEAN these days, and in East Asia more broadly. Clearly, any new partner is going to be judged on its ability to deliver value in that realm. It’s for that reason that Canada’s tepid approach to the reformatted Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP11, now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP) leaves a lot of big question marks for Canadian policy in ASEAN.

If we want deeper engagement with ASEAN, we will need to articulate our value to the regional trade agenda clearly and persuasively. This doesn’t have to mean embracing CPTPP; a clearly stated alternative might also work. But ASEAN member states are unlikely to go out of their way to include Canada in any regionally significant forum or diplomatic discussion on the basis of vague statements or vacillation about trade. As an organization of small states in a fast-moving region, ASEAN doesn’t have the diplomatic resources to engage everyone. Ottawa needs to make a very persuasive case that Canada is worth the time and effort. With continued engagement and some diplomatic hard work, a very good case for Canada can (and hopefully will) be made. Ottawa should make this a priority.

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