Canadian enthusiasm for China has fallen sharply, according to a national survey which found that Beijing's economic clout is increasingly viewed as a threat rather than an opportunity.
The study released by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APF) yesterday also found an increasing level of doubt about China's economic importance to Canada, in spite of China being Canada's second-largest trading partner.
"Even though a third [33 per cent] of Canadians believe Canada is more a part of the Asia Pacific region than it was a decade ago, they are less convinced today of the potential economic benefits for Canada of building closer ties with Asian countries," the APF said in briefing notes.
The think tank added: "This trend is particularly true in the case of China. The proportion of Canadians who consider China to be highly important to their economic prosperity dropped … to the lowest level ever recorded by APF Canada's National Opinion Poll."
Bilateral trade between the two nations hit C$70.1 billion (HK$497 billion) in 2012, a 7.8 per cent increase on the year before, and an amount exceeded only by Canada's trade with the US.
Yet the APF survey found that only 35 per cent of respondents rated China as being of high importance to Canada's prosperity. That was down sharply, from 45 per cent last year.
When asked if they agreed with the statement that China's economic power was more of an opportunity than a threat, only 41 per cent agreed. That was down from 48 per cent last year.
The findings revealed a growing disconnect between perceptions and the reality of China's importance to Canada's economy, and an overall lack of understanding about the importance of Asian trade to Canada, said APF president Yuen Pau Woo.
"Canadians confuse personal affinity with economic importance," said Woo ahead of the study's release.
He said the best example of this was the contrasting assessment of the economic importance of South Korea and Australia. Australia is the country that Canadians feel most warmly towards, and more than a quarter (26 per cent) of Canadians also viewed Australia as "highly important" economically, even though it is not a top-10 trading partner of Canada.
"[Australian trade] was seen as twice as 'important' as [trade] with Korea, even though our trade with Korea is three times larger than that with Australia," said Woo.
He added: "Many Canadians do not appreciate how important China has been to Canada, especially since the 2008 global financial crisis."
Woo said there was a risk that the Canada-Asia relationship would suffer if false understandings about its economic importance were not addressed, and leaders remained "complacent" about ties. "Canadians have a variety of fears about China and other Asian countries … but we need a clear message that China and Asia are of very high [economic] importance to the country," said Woo.
He said Canada was sending China mixed signals, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet having failed to ratify a foreign investment protection agreement with China, even though it was tabled in parliament in 2012. There had also been a lack of response to Chinese overtures for a free-trade agreement.
The APF study found that support for free-trade agreements with China had fallen to 36 per cent, down from 42 per cent last year.
Even in British Columbia, only 12 per cent of respondents said they felt warmly towards China.