North America is not about to be sundered by secession. But discussions are gaining momentum in government study groups and think-tanks throughout the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada. The idea is to create a unified economic corridor that would gradually smudge out the US-Canadian border and unite a wedge of land from Vancouver in British Columbia, southwards through Seattle as far as Eugene in central Oregon.
The romantic name is derived from the Cascade mountain range that could mark the area's eastern boundary (though some argue it should ultimately extend further to take in Idaho, Montana and even northern California).
The approval last week in the US House of Representatives of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) was more a step towards a North American Efta than a common market. But it will give renewed impetus to the campaign to create Cascadia.
This could, in turn, herald the beginnings of a new regionalism that might eventually weaken the east-west lines of government in Canada and America, which are rooted in the warfare and historical accidents of the 18th century.
Part of what binds Vancouver to its American neighbours was highlighted last week by the gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders in Seattle. Regionalism, to its proponents, holds a special logic in a world of increasingly global competition. And all of this region finds itself ever more tied, by trade and immigration flows, to the countries of South-east Asia.
Vancouver - or 'Hongcouver' to some - is destined one day to become North America's first majority Asian city. In Seattle, the second language is not Spanish, as in other American cities, but Japanese. Asians make up 13 per cent of the city's population, and more than one-fifth of its school enrolment. And there are more Asian elected officials in Washington than in any other US state apart from Hawaii. At Seattle-Tacoma airport, the discombobulated voice on the shuttle trains alternates between English and Japanese.
Vancouver and Seattle seem especially suited as partners. Both cities boast similar civic and social values, especially their commitment to the environment. Both have skyscraper business communities and restive and creative student populations. They share the same waters of the Puget Sound and the Georgia Basin, have similar, white-peaked backdrops, and know the importance of a good cappuccino.
Among Cascadia's most enthusiastic backers is Seattle's mayor, Norman Rice. He is chairman of a new committee, the Cascadia Transportation/ Trade Task Force, created two months ago to study the details of carving out the new zone. 'There is no such thing as national trade policy,' he declared at the committee's opening meeting. 'In the 21st century, winners and losers will not be nations, they will not be individual cities, they will be entire regions.'
It is exactly in the context of the 15-member Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum eventually forging trans- Pacific free trade, that Mr Rice sees Cascadia, with his city at its heart, prospering.
Some of the argument in favour of Cascadia is best grasped during a visit to the small town of Blaine, where the I-5 highway crosses into British Columbia. The so-called Peace Arch at the border bearing the inscription 'Children of a common mother', symbolises the project's noblest hopes. The negative side of the reality is the tailback of traffic on the US side of the frontier, which can sometimes delay travellers for up to three hours. The first tangible base for serious discussion of Cascadia is the need, keenly felt on both sides of the border, for an efficient north-south rail link to lure people from their environmentally damaging cars and end the jams at Blaine. Amtrak, the US passenger train carrier which abandoned its Vancouver-Seattle service 12 years ago, blaming falling traffic, recently announced plans to reopen the line next year. The journey time, however, will still be three hours and 55 minutes - more than by car.
'Hopeless]' retorts John Miller, a former US congressman, who is senior fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, which is at the forefront of the Cascadia movement. 'We have to have some vision, and we are not going to get it with three hours and 55 minutes.' His ambition is the laying of America's first bullet-train line, perhaps on a magnetic levitation system, all the way from Vancouver to Eugene. First federal funding for project studies was granted by Washington last year.
Other steps are already being taken that may help to make Cascadia seem plausible. Seattle's baseball team, majority- owned by Japan's Nintendo Corporation, is expected to play a handful of its 1995 league games in Vancouver in an attempt to gather new fans from across the border; and there is talk of calling the team the Cascadia Mariners.
Washington State and British Columbia have launched a joint 'two-nation vacation' tourist campaign, and are considering offering a Eurail-type travel pass for rail, plane and ferry travel in the Vancouver and Seattle areas. The Vancouver stock exchange has floated the idea of a Cascadia exchange to raise money for regional companies.
The potential implications of the new regionalism for the centres of government back East - Washington DC and Ottawa - was highlighted by Mike Brennan, president of the chamber of commerce of Bellingham, the first sizeable US city south of the border. He pointed to the recent success of the western-based Reform Party in last month's Canadian election, and claimed that a similar feeling of alienation from federal government is felt in the western US. 'Against that backdrop, Cascadia makes all the sense in the world,' he said.
Not everyone north of the border is so certain. Suspicion about a Yankee take-over is hard to overcome, and there is a more ingrained distrust of free trade. 'We don't want to be swallowed up in this process,' warns Halsey Brandt, mayor of Richmond, on the southern fringe of Vancouver, who is sitting on Mayor Rice's task force. 'In spite of our shared interests, we have distinct cultural identities, and we want to preserve them.'
(Photographs and map omitted)