As if anyone needed a reminder that we are living in an Asian Century, Indian conglomerate Tata announced this week it wanted to sell off a steel plant in Britain, threatening 15,000 British jobs. It was a pretty stark reminder of the eastward power shift: The world's decision makers are as likely to be in Mumbai as in London.
But Britain, which has also been accused of bending over backward in its trade relationship with China, is just one of many countries struggling to figure out its place in an era of Asian economic ascendance. It's sort of weird to ask, but when will Vancouver, British Columbia and Canada do the same?
For a city and province that are supposed to be Canada's gateway to the Asia-Pacific, it is rather remarkable how much Vancouverites and British Columbians agonize about their relationship with Asia, as well as how little thought politicians at all levels seem to have given to pondering any strategy other than the current one – which is to sell as much stuff as possible. Trade missions and wooing investment are the easy part, though. Contemplating serious policies to shape the relationship to Canada's advantage is much trickier.
As Vancouver housing prices soar to surreal levels in part because of the near-limitless demand from wealthy migrants from China, much of the city's young middle class – myself and some of my friends included – have declined to put down roots here. Many of us have made a decision on what type of city we want to live in, and Vancouver isn't that city. But have political leaders made a firm decision yet on what kind of city – and economy – they are actually building here? It seems they are making it up on the hoof.
And what's happening in Vancouver is not surprising or unique: It's happening from Sydney to San Francisco. It is simply one manifestation of a global phenomenon: China's extremely rapid ascent from a socialist agrarian society to the world's second-largest economy, an unprecedented industrial boom that has raised more than 300 million people out of poverty and created more than two million millionaire households in China, according to the Boston Consulting Group. Those millionaires are not staying put, either: A survey from Barclays in 2014 found 50 per cent of China's wealthy wanted to emigrate and estimates suggest tens of thousands of "investor immigrants" from China have settled in Vancouver.
Is any of this necessarily bad? Of course not. Vancouver is a proudly cosmopolitan city that has been shaped for the better by previous waves of transpacific immigration. Although the boom times have made a number of Realtors and homeowners rich, there is now a growing affordability crisis. And the lengthening list of statistics and surveys – whether it's one showing a quarter of condos in a downtown neighbourhood are empty as investment properties or that 70 per cent of houses priced over $3-million in 2014 sold to buyers from China – has been met with slack-jawed silence by most politicians. In some ways, it's pretty simple: There is just no political upside to slapping hefty taxes on real estate purchases by foreign nationals in Vancouver, something that would obviously reduce house prices (as well as accrued home equity); nor is there any goodwill to be had by enacting a policy that risks being perceived as a reincarnation of the Chinese head tax in a province with a grim history of racism.
But the rise of China was never going to be a phenomenon limited to the area within China's borders. The economic transformation of the Middle Kingdom is one of the most central geopolitical events of our age. It is startlingly obvious that governments around the world must choose a strategy, both to cope and to benefit – whether in geopolitics, immigration or trade and investment. Hong Kong and Singapore both introduced steep taxes aimed at foreign purchases of their local real estate, in part because of mainland Chinese money. A previous Australian government even wrote an entire white paper on the ramifications of the Asian Century and instituted the teaching of Asian languages, but Australia – faced with rising unaffordability – also moved to prevent foreign investors from purchasing existing homes as investments.
In Canada, though, we haven't yet had a proper debate on what sort of policies should shape our evolving relationship with Asia, beyond pursuing greater trade. B.C. tries to portray itself as a gateway to Asia, even as a good deal of British Columbians oppose any development that might see increased exports. More tellingly, the recent federal election campaign featured a debate focused solely on foreign policy – and China wasn't even mentioned once.
In Vancouver, people are finally beginning to talk about what's happening and CEOs are warning of an economy denuded of talented young people. But it might already be too late to change course, without popping a bubble. And policy makers are still saying they await more conclusive data on what's behind the phenomenon – even as the province tailors new research that is bound to be either inconclusive or inaccurate. Even though China's consul-general in Vancouver told me, in an interview last year, that the housing market here obviously needs more regulation, we will probably study this topic for years – because studying is easier than doing something about it.
Action on "shadow-flipping" was an easy win for the Premier because it was non-controversial (it's a policy that actually helps homeowners, rather than helping first-time buyers or, God forbid, the homeless) and will do nothing to affect the broader market. Years ago, Stephen Harper imposed limits on foreign investment in the oil sands from state-owned enterprises located mainly in China. He was doing what any country, including China, can and should do: Think hard about what's in the country's best interest.
But pretending China has not risen, or will not rise further, does not constitute a strategy: It is naive. And that applies to all levels of government, whether in Ottawa, Victoria or Vancouver.