Asia Pacific Foundation president and CEO Yuen Pau Woo insists that building bridges to Asia involves more than just shipping more containers
Canada’s west coast is naturally endowed with much more than stunning mountain views and ocean-swept coastline, says Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada president and CEO Yuen Pau Woo. There’s also the close proximity to Asia, and the unrealized prospects of accessing growing markets at a time when our historical trading partners sputter into recession.
“Canada has been a Pacific country in name for a long time, but our engagement with Asia has been relatively limited,” he says. “But our future prosperity will depend very much on our ability to build long-term relationships with Asian countries.”
Under the leadership of 47-year-old Malaysia-born Woo, the foundation is tasked with advancing Asia-Canada relations in the interest of present and future Canadian prosperity. Created by an act of Parliament in 1984, this Vancouver-based, non-profit think tank and knowledge broker generates research and pulls together experts and information with a goal that Woo describes as the “fulfillment of Canada’s history and destiny.”
Woo challenges the sentimental “Pierre Berton vision” of Canada’s 19th-century trans-Canada railway as our defining national project. The primary goal of this infrastructure was to provide national access to the Pacific Ocean and Asian markets, Woo says. “The very founding mythology of Canada was all about connecting Canada to Asia.”
With feet firmly planted in both Asia and Canada, Woo is an ideal leader for the foundation. Raised in Singapore, at 16 he came to Victoria on an academic scholarship. “It was a life-changing experience; it got me to Canada, where I met my wife,” he says.
Woo went on to study liberal arts, followed by graduate work in economics. He worked for Singapore’s central bank before returning to Vancouver in 1996 to join the Asia Pacific Foundation as a research fellow, rising to the top job in 2005.
Since he took the helm, the foundation has adapted to a radically new economic climate. The upheaval of 2008 made it bluntly clear that a global economic and power shift had taken place, he says. Not only did the financial crisis underscore the “centrality of Asia in the world economy,” but also the need for Canada to diversify its markets and to put more emphasis on Asia.
Woo says the biggest challenge to Canada’s relationship with Asia is not what Canadians do in Asia – selling more stuff, sending more trade missions – but what we need to do at home. “I’m referring to the awareness, the knowledge, the language skills, the sensitivities to Asian culture and business practices that are so essential if we are to establish Canada as a serious player in the Asia Pacific region,” he explains.
Woo launched The National Conversation On Asia in 2011, which seeks to engage businesses, community organizations and all of civil society in developing the Canada-Asia relationship. He summarizes the conversation simply: “Asia matters to you even if you have nothing to do with Asia.”
While the conversation takes a bottom-up approach to engaging civil society, the foundation also convenes numerous task forces to reach leaders in business and government. One task force addresses pipelines, oil tankers and the role Canadian oil sands and shale gas will play in Asia’s energy future; another is focused on foreign state investment in Canadian resources by countries such as China, and the obstacles to free trade. “We don’t have a single free trade agreement in Asia,” notes Woo. “Why is that?”
Woo is convinced Canada must focus less on the Pacific gateway, and more on the Pacific economy. Most Canadians think of the gateway as one-dimensional transportation infrastructure involving containers getting through a port and efficiently loaded onto rail cars. But the wealth creation of simple “throughput” is minimal, he says. There is a universe of supporting service opportunities on the periphery of the portal that Canada can better exploit – financial and accounting, business management, environmental services, engineering, and a full range of other activities that are part of that wider gateway economy.
B.C. can learn from ports in Hong Kong and Singapore, Woo says, which take full advantage of the enormous value-added opportunities that surround them. “Don’t just focus on the portal; focus on the activity,” he insists. And by expanding the gateway focus, B.C. can build resiliency into our economy: If future circumstances cause port and transportation facilities to be somehow bypassed or underutilized, the world-class services developed here will remain in demand the world over.
Woo is currently experimenting with social media to get these messages out. “I’m still trying to figure it out, to be honest,” he says with a laugh, adding he has about 90 Twitter followers to date.
He lives in North Vancouver with his physician wife, where they have raised four children, two of whom are today studying at U.S. Ivy League universities. When he’s not working, Woo indulges his passion for live music, in a metropolis endowed with more natural advantages than many British Columbians have yet to realize.
“Vancouver is the most Asian city outside of Asia, and has contemporary connections to Asia through its demographic,” he says. “And that positions us to have very deep and beneficial ties with the Asian countries.”