China is seen more as a trade threat than an opportunity, according to Canadian respondents of an online survey conducted on behalf of the Asia Pacific Foundation.
The annual survey, in its tenth year, was conducted by the Angus Reid polling firm, between Feb. 25 and March 7, 2014, and received responses from 3,487 Canadian adults.
The participant responses suggest that uncertainty about closer trade ties extends to all of Asia.
Results of the online survey will be released later today, but CBC News has obtained an embargoed copy.
The number of respondents who said they believed Asia should be Canada's top foreign policy priority dropped 14 points this year, to 37 per cent, according to the poll.
The poll also suggests a disconnect between the trade relationships respondents believe are important, and the actual economic impact of Canada's trade relationships.
About a quarter of respondents view Australia as "very important" to Canada's prosperity, while half that amount felt the same way about South Korea.
'We fear or we are hesitant or reticent about things we don't know and don't understand.'- Yuen Pau Woo, Asia Pacific Foundation president
Australia is not even among Canada's top 10 trading partners, while South Korea ranks seventh.
China is Canada's second largest trading partner, behind the United States.
"We may have a situation here where Canadian attitudes and perceptions are not in sync with the economic realities," said Yuen Pau Woo, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation.
"I think it’s because Canadians don’t see the impact of our trade with Asian countries. Much of it is commodities, much of it is arms-length, it doesn’t affect the average person, particularly in urban centres," he said during an interview with CBC's The Lang & O'Leary Exchange.
Woo points to the very negative perception of China that has developed her because of China's own problems, such as debt, pollution and corruption, and stories about Chinese cyber-espionage.
"I think there is also a lack of discussion here, particularly by our political and business leaders about the importance of Asian countries for our economic future," he added.
He points to the doubling of Canadian trade with China in the last six years, while trade with the U.S. has not yet recovered to its pre-recession levels.
This year, the survey delved into the reasons behind the shrinking support for trade with China and Asia overall.
The concerns range from a loss of Canadian jobs, to human rights, to national security.
But Woo said Canada needs China and more trade with Asia overall for its own economic security in the future.
Asia strategy needed
Woo said it's up to the federal government to communicate that to the public.
"We need a China strategy. It's one, of course, that will take the good, the bad, and the ugly along with it. But we can't afford to send mixed messages, we can't afford to do nothing."
Critics say Ottawa has been doing just that lately.
Two years ago, the federal government signed the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act with China. But it has yet to be ratified by Canada, even though China has already done so.
The federal government also conducted a sector by sector analysis for closer trade ties. But little has been done with that information so far.
Woo said it's now time for the federal government to do the hard work.
"It's not like putting logs or coal in a container, and shipping off to people you never have to see or make contact with," Woo said, adding, "It involves Chinese companies setting up in your backyard and implementing Chinese practices, different ways of doing things. We haven't quite come to grips with that part of the challenge."
Peter Harder, the president of the Canada China Business Council, also believes Ottawa must address that challenge.
Harder said when public support is not there for closer trade ties, it can be easy for politicians not to act.
"If it's a political cost to engage in a necessary economic relationship, that's going to be difficult," Harder told CBC News.
'Our competition is beating us.'- Peter Harder, Canada China Business Council
Harder said the problem is that while Canada waits to ratify the investment deal, and does nothing on increasing sector by sector trade ties, other countries are doing just that.
"Our competition is beating us. Even while we are increasing our trade and investment, we are falling behind our competitors," Harder said.
The federal government said it will ratify the investment treaty, but hasn't said exactly when.