Author: Adam P MacDonald, Halifax
Ever since Washington unveiled its ‘rebalance’ strategy for the Asia Pacific, debate has emerged in Canada over the need for a similar ‘mini-pivot’ towards the region. Despite its large Western coastline, Canada does not self-identify as a Pacific state due to enduring ties to Europe and the Atlantic.
But East Asia is increasingly the focus of Canada’s efforts to diversify trade partners and secure access to emerging markets. This is exemplified by the 2015 Canada–Korea Free Trade Agreement, China recently becoming Canada’s second largest trading partner, and Ottawa’s support for and participation in the now terminated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.
Still, growing economic relations in East Asia have not been accompanied by any sustained political or strategic engagement despite the abundance of security interests of direct relevance for Canada. These interests include promoting global and regional stability amid shifting power configurations, resolving outstanding regional maritime disputes and North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities (motivating renewed discussions about Ottawa joining Washington’s Ballistic Missile Defence program). East Asian states’ growing interest and involvement in the Arctic — particularly China — is also a source of speculation and debate within Canadian strategic circles.
Successive governments have spoken eloquently of Canada’s long and enduring interests and involvement in East Asia. But Canada’s presence has been sporadic and on a downward slope since its zenith in the mid-1990s. Canadian engagement with the region has been ‘fair-weather’, whereby the degree of participation is not determined by enduring interests but as a function of available resources and the absence of competing foreign policy demands.
But there may be glimpses of a more concerted and sustained Canadian effort to remain regularly engaged with East Asia. Prime Minister Trudeau’s high-profile visits to Japan and China within the first year of his tenure along with the ongoing six-month deployment of two Canadian naval warships to the region are positive signs. Defence officials, in particular, explain the recent deployment as signalling the strategic importance of the region to Canada and as reinforcing a commitment to regional peace and security. Despite the navy’s declining size and capability, major deployments to East Asia are planned for the next two years.
While it is premature to extrapolate any emerging trends from these plans, a number of scholars advocate regular naval deployments for Canada to pursue maritime diplomacy as an ambitious but attainable avenue to achieve staying power in the region. This would also provide in-theatre capability for Canada to conduct a wide spectrum of operations ranging from combat to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
But even with the recent comprehensive refit of Canada’s last remaining major class of surface ships and a large-scale shipbuilding strategy to recapitalise the Canadian Navy, Canada’s naval forces will remain highly limited both in numbers and capabilities for the next 10–15 years.
Maritime diplomacy enables and supports but does not in and of itself constitute a regional strategy. While Ottawa is in the midst of a defence policy review largely focused on constructing a fiscal framework for major procurement projects, there appears to be little appetite to conduct a foreign policy review to guide and inform the use of military power in Canada’s international affairs.
Some have voiced aversion to any increased strategic interaction in East Asia, arguing the presence of even a small Canadian naval force will unnecessarily antagonise China and hamper economic relations. It would also put warships at risk in an increasingly tense geopolitical environment, be seen as an unwelcome interference in regional issues, and ultimately as a disjointed venture given the now uncertain trajectory of US regional policy.
Despite some reasonable concerns, Canada should also not avoid the region due to fears of being dragged into a local conflict or that national interests do not warrant such an investment. Canada has direct economic and political ties to the region and has a larger interest as a middle power supportive of a rules-based international system. Canada has also been criticised for too little engagement with the region, not too much. But such a maritime diplomacy strategy also requires Ottawa to acknowledge the reciprocal freedoms of other states to access maritime regions sensitive to Canada, especially the Arctic.
Any augmentation of strategic interactions also presents the challenge of perceptions that Ottawa’s presence is an extension of US policy in the region, especially regarding how military power is employed. While a close ally with the United States and sharing common international interests, Canada is never going to be a major player in the region given its limited ability to project power and influence. Ottawa is ill-suited to adopt similar strategies to Washington in this respect.
Instead, Canada does have an ability to participate in the regional political discourse, especially regarding areas of tension. For example, as an Arctic state, Canada could positively contribute to advising on structures for joint management by competing claimants over disputed areas, such as in the South China Sea. But Ottawa should not confuse a regional strategy with a strategy specifically about this or other disputed areas. Canada must first build and strengthen relations with the region to promote the necessary political conditions to address outstanding territorial and maritime disputes.
Maritime diplomacy is not the only avenue towards increasing relations with East Asia. But it does allow Canadian leaders to signal a visible presence and commitment to the region and creates an impetus for Ottawa to construct a more comprehensive, clear and independent foreign engagement strategy. Whether the recent dispatching of warships is the start of a real determination to shed its fair-weather status is yet to be seen.
Adam P MacDonald is an independent researcher based in Halifax, Canada.