In Kuala Lumpur, PM Harper can’t compete with Chinese president’s state visit

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – It had been 17 years since a sitting Canadian prime minister had visited Malaysia and on Saturday Stephen Harper slipped in with barely a ripple.

Amid a capital consumed with a state visit by new Chinese President Xi Jinping, Harper simply couldn’t compete and chose to spend a low-key day touring a mosque and a maritime air base and speaking to Canadian business leaders.

That’s not to say Canadians aren’t competing in Southeast Asia.

The emerging economies have been a bright spot in global economic growth and a number of Canadian firms have capitalized.

Marc Parent, the chief executive officer of Montreal-based CAE, says Canada punches “way above our weight” in the aerospace sector, and CAE’s flight simulators and pilot training are part of that success.

A growing Southeast Asian middle class is a key driver, said Parent. And having a stream of top Canadian officials — from ministers to the Governor General and now the prime minister — visit the region in recent years has helped as well.

“I can tell you it’s translated into increased business for us in Brunei, in the Philippines and other (regional) nations,” Parent told reporters.

He was part of the round table group that met Harper on Saturday in a downtown hotel. Talisman Energy, Bombardier Rail, Teknion Furniture and several major financial institutions are among the Canadian firms already cashing in on regional growth.

CAE Inc., does all the pilot training for Air Asia, a discount airline that’s the fastest growing in the region.

“This is very much a growing economic relationship with a good presence of Canadian businesses and Malaysian businesses in each other’s country,” Harper said for the cameras during a brief photo-op before the closed-door business discussion.

Canadian business presence in Malaysia may be growing, but the Chinese regional colossus puts Canada-Malaysian two-way trade in sharp perspective — and explains the fawning media coverage accorded President Xi’s visit.

Canada-Malaysia commercial trade tops out at about $3 billion annually, while China is doing almost a billion dollars a year in trade with Malaysia. On Saturday, President Xi said he’d like to see that total hit $160 billion a year by 2017.

Small wonder then that Harper is keying in on trade talks with Pacific Rim countries — Malaysia included — as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. Those talks will be a subtext of the leaders’ summit that begins Monday on the Indonesian island of Bali, where Harper heads Sunday after being formally welcomed to Malaysia by Prime Minister Mohd Najib.

The Prime Minister’s Office can only hope that the formal welcome in Perdana Square, outside Najib’s official residence, raises Canada’s profile in Malaysia.

Protocol demands on Saturday meant Harper’s arrival at the spanking new Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency Air Station, where he was greeted by an honour guard and brass band, could not be filmed by the media.

Just about the only moment Saturday that rose above rote routine came when a vice-admiral in the Malaysian maritime enforcement unit ended a media briefing with an off-colour rhyme about his name, Ahmad Puzi, that was not suitable for prime time television. The quip elicited guffaws from his officers and abashed grins from his Canadian guests.

Nothing, apparently, was to be allowed that might step on coverage of the Chinese president’s state visit.

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