By Yuen Pau Woo
Premier Christy Clark recently announced that she will be leading a mission to China, Japan, and Korea in November. Standing with her at the press briefing were three executives whose businesses are emblematic of the opportunities and challenges facing the province.
Port Metro Vancouver is the embodiment of Canada’s Asia-Pacific gateway. Last year, five of Asia’s largest economies accounted for more than 65 per cent of the port’s international traffic. To prepare for the doubling of traffic that is expected in the next 15 years, there will have to be investments in port capacity, and in greater public understanding of the need for such.
Also standing with the premier was a representative from the Kitimat LNG consortium who spoke about the company’s plans to export liquefied natural gas to Asian countries. The discovery of shale gas, and the subsequent race to develop viable projects, is the closest thing to a gold rush since the 1800s. It is also a game changer for North American energy trade and industrial development.
The gold rush did not end well for many prospectors — but there can be no doubt about the enormous opportunity today to provide a relatively clean source of energy to buyers in Northeast Asia who are eagerly seeking secure long-term supplies. While there are risks associated with LNG exports to Asia, the province is right in making every effort to realize the opportunity by encouraging investment, streamlining the permitting process, building community support, and cultivating buyers.
The port and natural gas businesses represent current economic opportunities for B.C. that are based on geography, which is immutable. The economic potential of these natural endowments, however, is very much changeable.
The idea of Vancouver as Canada’s Asia-Pacific gateway, for example, is not a 21st century invention but one that goes back to the very establishment of the city. The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, after all, was about creating a sea link between Asia and North America/Europe. Vancouver was the Asia-Pacific gateway from the late 1800s, ferrying silk, oranges, tea, and Royal Mail from Asian ports to the United Kingdom. The changing fortunes of nations, new sea routes, improvements in shipping, air travel, and other technological advances were the game changers of the 20th century that led to a temporary decline in trans-Pacific shipping and in Vancouver’s role as an Asia-Pacific gateway — until the idea was revived in the last decade.
In many ways, Vancouver airport is facing the same challenge that CP steamships encountered in the early 20th century. With new aircraft models that can fly 16,000 kilometres without refuelling, the role of YVR as a gateway or hub for travel between Asia and the Americas has been undermined. YVR understands this problem very well, and it is a testament to the airport’s leadership that Vancouver today has more flights to Asia than any other North American airport. Even so, the challenge ahead is clear: Vancouver has to graduate from being just a gateway to becoming a destination, if it is to continue to attract long-term flows of travellers.
Which is why I was so taken by the third of Clark’s guests at the podium. Pelysis is a company in Richmond that is minute compared to the port or natural gas industry, but it represents in many ways the kind of business that one would expect to emerge from a city that has its roots as a transportation gateway. Pelysis provides training solutions to airlines and related businesses around the world, including Boeing, Air Canada, Canadian Helicopters, and COMAC. I know very little about the business, but it is intuitive that such a business would have started in a transportation gateway. At the same time, it is apparent that the company’s viability in the long term does not rely on the success of that gateway but on its ability to service clients anywhere in the world.
The long-term success of the Asia-Pacific gateway, therefore, will depend not only on traditional “transit” functions of the gateway, but increasingly on the broader idea of a “gateway economy” — wealth-creating activities that are based on the gateway qualities of our unique location which can thrive even if the gateway itself becomes less important.
In practical terms, it means doing more with the province’s unique connections to Asia. Even though Vancouver is the most Asian city outside of Asia, there are relatively few regional head offices of Asian companies in the city. While there is a steady flow of Asian business leaders through the Lower Mainland, little business activity seems to result from these visits. And when major conference planners look for venues to hold “Asia Pacific”-themed events, do they think Vancouver?
The underdevelopment of our Asia connections extends to the cultural sphere. We may have some of the finest Chinese food, the most innovative Indian cuisine, and the best value-for-money sushi in the world, but we do not have a major Asian cultural institution in the heart of downtown Vancouver — an institution which reflects the importance of the Asian presence in B.C. for the whole of the city, not just for the Asian community.
There are of course many fine examples of Asian heritage preservation and promotion across the Lower Mainland, but the true significance of Vancouver as an Asian city will only become apparent when the focus is on its contemporary connections to Asia, rather than on tokens of Asian heritage.
In the same way that gateways can rise and fall with the passage of time, the unique advantage of B.C.’s ties to Asia can also be eroded. There is, after all, nothing magical about having a large number of citizens with Asian ancestry. Unless we build tangible business, political, and cultural ties with Asia — for the benefit of all British Columbians — the Asian character of this province will become little more than a matter of demographics and historical curiosity.
Yuen Pau Woo is President and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada