Perhaps more than any other word, underwhelming is the word that best describes the bilateral Canada- Philippines relationship.
Despite having formal relations between the two countries for over 70 years, the Philippines rarely receives attention from Canadian senior public policy makers outside of international conferences, natural disasters, or the odd Canadian federal election campaign.
But why? Why so little interest?
Well first, the Philippines is very far away from Canada. While distance might not seem as important in our current age of smartphones, video conferencing, and international flights, the fact that the distance between Toronto and Manila is 13,217km. While the two countries are not quite on the exact opposite of Earth from each other, they might as well be. This distance means that Canadians don’t hear about the Philippines, can’t visit the Philippines easily and that trading with the Philippines is harder. To be blunter, the Philippines is out of sight, out of mind for most Canadians.
Second, while Canada and the Philippines have had diplomatic relations for over 70 years there has been no real substantial change in the relationship between the two countries during this time period. With no free trade agreement between Canada and the Philippines, there is less of an economic focus on the relationship than with other Asian countries. While there have been memos of understanding regarding military training between the Canadian Armed Forces and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the two countries have neither a bilateral nor multilateral security agreement with each other meaning that there is little security focus to the relationship.
Finally, Canada’s capacity to conduct foreign policy is primarily focused on its historical partners of the United States and European countries. Unfortunately, this strong focus appears to have limited the time available of senior public policy to focus on Asia and other parts of the world. An additional challenge for the Philippines (and many other countries in Asia) when attention is finally made to Asia, it is China, Japan and India that consume everyone’s time.
But the Philippines is worth watching.
At a most basic level, any country that has over 100 million people is worth paying attention to. Now add to that a country whose average age is 25.7 years, whose population is expected to be 150 million people in 2050, whose annual GDP is consistently growing at 6%, and you come up with a country that is poised to be a major growth market.
In this time of increasing geopolitical competition between the United States and China, the Philippines physical place in the world also makes increasingly important. When looking a map of Asia from China, the Philippines is part of the first chain of islands that could potential limit China’s expansion, that it has ongoing maritime disputes with China and add in the fact that the Philippines is a former colony of and a current treaty ally to the United States and the Philippines will be impacted by the tensions between the two larger powers.
The Philippines will try hard to avoid choosing a side between China and the US while looking for additional countries to which it can rely on.
And that is where Canada could come in.
While the relationship between the two countries at a formal level may be underwhelming, the relationship between the people of Canada and the people of the Philippines is stronger.
In Canada, Filipino Canadians are the 4th largest visible minority in the country with over 900,000 people being of Filipino descent. With over 15% of all new immigrants to Canada coming from the Philippines, it is the top source of immigrants to Canada which is now home to the 3rd largest Filipino diaspora in the world. The Philippines students are increasingly attending Canadian schools with the most recent data showing that they are the 13th largest sources of international students to Canada.
In the Philippines, Canadians represent the 7th largest group of expatriates, and this number will continue to grow.
On the trade front, Canada-Philippines bilateral trade totalled $2.3 billion in 2019 which was a small decrease from 2018 while Canadian investment abroad in the Philippines was approximately $2.5 billion in 2019 which represents an increase from 2018. With its large, growing, and English-speaking population the Philippines represents an attractive market for Canadian companies and investors.
Lastly while the sheer distance of between Canada and the Philippines will always remain, the Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia that has direct flights to Canada which makes getting to and from the Philippines a little bit easier. Ed Note: At 16.5 hours, the flight from Toronto to Manila is one of the longest schedule passenger routes in the world.
Among Western countries Canada with its strong people to people history, its economic connection, and its reputation as being one of the friendliest, safest, and trust-worthy countries in the world is well placed to improve its relationship with the Philippines, especially as Filipinos have a very positive impression of Canada and Canadians.
So, what is holding back the relationship?
As mentioned above distance, the lack of additional agreements and focus by public policy makers has all contributed to the underwhelming nature of the relationship but there is another factor that has played a role not moving the bilateral relationship in the past few years. And that is their leader does not like our leader.
In fact, saying the President Duterte doesn’t like Prime Minister Trudeau might be unselling it a bit as President Duterte has threated go to war with Canada in the past amid criticism of his government’s human rights record, the cancellation of a sale of military helicopters and a boat full of 2,500 tons Canadian garbage that sat in the Manila harbour for six years. While having two leaders that like each other doesn’t necessarily mean that two countries will get along, having the leaders not get along is a great way for not moving the Canadian-Philippines relationship forward.
But with President Duterte limited to one term as President of the Philippines, in 2022 the relationship between the two countries could all change as the Philippines holds its national general election to choose new elected representatives and a new President.
In the next post, we will look at the upcoming 2022 Philippines election, who are the key players, what are some of the key issues, what are some of the possible outcomes, what it will mean to foreign companies and countries like Canada and what is the possibility of a reset of relations between Canada and the Philippines.