Canadians are growing less interested in economic ties with rapidly growing emerging markets in Asia because of concerns about work force competition, large state-owned companies and political systems in those countries, according to a new survey of attitudes on the region.

The Vancouver-based Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada (APFC), a non-profit that promotes trade and cultural relations, found that Canadians had soured over the past year on engagement with Asia – particularly China – and were more likely to support relations with politically like-minded trading partners such as the United States and Australia.

The percentage of those polled who thought Canada would benefit from Asian investment dropped from 50 per cent in 2013 to 41 per cent this year, while the figure for China dropped from 45 per cent last year to just 35 per cent in 2014. Almost across the board, the survey reveals a lack of support for doing more business with Asian countries, forging free trade agreements in the region or attracting investment from large state-owned companies in places such as Malaysia and China.

“Sentiment has cooled on Asia,” says Yuen Pau Woo, CEO of the Asia-Pacific Foundation.

“Canadians are more inward-looking, insular, and afraid of change. And they’re keen on maintaining relationships with traditional trading partners rather than emerging markets. It’s not a positive picture. It displays a sense of complacency and misunderstanding.”

The online survey of 3,487 people was conducted between Feb. 25 and March 7 by Angus Reid Public Opinion, with a margin of error of 1.7 percentage points.

Older Canadians were particularly pessimistic about Canada’s relations with countries such as China, India and South Korea, and dragged down the overall results. Younger Canadians’ views on the region remained more stable. There was also less support this year for teaching Asian history and culture in Canadian schools, as well as reduced support for teaching Asian languages.

Those with higher education were also more supportive of free trade in Asia, the survey notes: A majority of those with university degrees support free trade with India, Japan, South Korea and in Southeast Asia, while respondents with a high school education or less were very unlikely to support free trade with an Asian country. Men were also more likely than women to support free trade agreements in Asia.

The survey authors do note, however, that Canadians’ views on Asian emerging markets were not out of step with negative opinions toward non-Asian emerging markets more generally, such as Turkey and Russia. Indeed, Russia was the last choice for a free trade partnership.

But the poll did find a bias among respondents against Asian nations, which distorted people’s perceptions of countries’ relative importance to Canada. For example, roughly twice as many respondents said Australia was more important to Canada’s economy than South Korea, despite the fact that Canada’s trade with South Korea is nearly three times its trade with Australia. More Canadians also thought that the United Kingdom – which is Canada’s third-largest trading partner – was more important to Canada economically than China, which is the country’s second-largest trading partner after the United States.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, British Columbia – which exports almost as much to Asia as to the United States – had the “warmest” feelings toward Asian countries. Respondents in Ontario, with its hollowed out manufacturing sector, displayed the “coldest” feelings in the country toward greater trade with countries such as China, India and South Korea, as well as toward Southeast Asia more generally.

Mr. Woo said concerns about China and other countries with low-cost labour markets stealing jobs are simply a result of misunderstanding. He points out that Canadian manufacturing exports to the U.S. in 2013 – at $231-billion – are still below the level they were in 2008, while Canada’s trade with China during that period more than doubled.

“China is not the problem. China is the solution,” Mr. Woo says. “And it’s partly that Canadians have a view of the world that is outdated. It’s partly also our leadership. Leadership from political and business leaders has been ambiguous about the role of Asia to our economic interest.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Jun. 10 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Jun. 10 2014, 8:29 AM EDT