Canada’s Indo-Pacific Future: Time for a Long-Term Strategy

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When looking at the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region, one is instantly struck by the growing array of regional, institutional, and country-focused strategies. In recent years, there have been strategies or approaches from principal states in the region such as Japan, Australia, the United States and India (now forming a resuscitated Quad). Yet the focus on the Indo-Pacific is not limited to large states in the region. Other nations such as France and the United Kingdom have also released strategic documents recognizing the Indo-Pacific future. Indeed, the interest goes farther. Some states in Europe that do not even have a Pacific coastline or overseas territories, such as Germany and the Netherlands, have also publicly outlined their interests in the region. In addition, the European Union released its Strategy for Co-operation in the Indo-Pacific last September.

 

Finally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) articulated its views in 2019 in its Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Indonesia, in particular, has been a leader within ASEAN on promoting the development of the AOIP, which underscores for the first time some of the bloc’s shared values and norms in an Indo-Pacific context. This is not an insignificant development. Indeed, while the AOIP may not be as prescriptive or as clearly defined as national strategies from other states in the region, it adds weight to a growing consensus that there is room both for ASEAN as the region’s central hub and the various linkages between nation states in the broader Indo-Pacific.

 

Yet amid this flurry of attention, there remains an absent voice — a country that is a member of the G-7, the G-20, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and virtually every other significant international club. That country is Canada. It has a Pacific coastline stretching more than 27,000km and is deeply integrated with the region through thriving diaspora immigrant communities, increased economic exchanges and free trade. Rather than being a distant “non-resident” power, Canada is in fact a distinctly Pacific nation. As one former senior Canadian diplomat quipped, “Vancouver is actually a shorter distance to Tokyo than Sydney.”

 

Momentum Toward the Indo-Pacific

 

While Canada is geographically not so far from the region, though, in policy terms it continues to be an inconsistent and — unfortunately — forgettable contributor. The notion that Canada is even close to having the same relevance as Australia is a non-starter. Ottawa’s continued lack of urgency in embracing its Indo-Pacific future will only hinder its interests and encumber its promotion of the values it seeks to advance in the region.

 

For Canada, the traditional lens to look at such engagement has been through Asia-Pacific framing — defining the region largely through our experience in the multilateral architecture. Canada was a founding member of APEC in 1990 and has been a dialogue partner in the ASEAN Regional Forum since its formation in 1994. In addition to these two main vehicles, Canada has been active in the international development space over the years and is a member of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and in 2017 joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) — though not before considerable internal debate.

 

Yet despite having key interests in a stable and rules-based region, Canada seems late to the Indo-Pacific game. It does not seem to clearly and thoroughly articulate its rationale to invest its energy in the region compared with other middle powers. It’s time for a paradigm shift, and for Canada, along with its traditional partners and allies, to assertively and unapologetically promote its interests in the Indo-Pacific region. The volatility in the region underpins the need for Canada to work with other key liberal democracies to push forward the rules-based liberal order. Staying on the sidelines is not an option.

 

The “glass half full” side demonstrates a Canada eager to tilt toward the region. During the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Ottawa in April 2019, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted a “shared vision for maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region based on the rule of law.”1 This was Canada’s first high-level endorsement of the importance of Indo-Pacific strategies, which many key regional players had already adopted, such as the US, Japan, India and Australia. But this was not the first upfront embrace of the Indo-Pacific concept. Ottawa had already outlined its shared views on the region through a joint statement with India in February 2018. In it, the two sides agreed to “reaffirm the importance of lawful commerce and the freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the Indo-Pacific region, in accordance with international law.”2

 

This momentum has continued in Ottawa. In May 2021, Canada and Japan agreed bilaterally to construct an action-oriented workplan to look at six key area with the “Shared Canada-Japan Priorities Contributing to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” These areas include: 1) The rule of law; 2) peacekeeping operations, peacebuilding and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; 3) health security and responding to Covid-19; 4) energy security; 5) promotion of free trade and trade-agreement implementation; and, 6) environment and climate change.3

 

Work has gradually commenced on this workplan to provide a solid intellectual framework and roadmap for Canada’s broader strategy for the region. In the background, Canada also quietly started work internally developing the process of an Indo-Pacific strategy that could address the myriad challenges in the region (including an increasingly assertive and challenging bilateral relationship with China). While work on the strategy has been taking place for over two years now, the pressure has been ramped up of late for Ottawa to deliver, with the Indo-Pacific featuring prominently both in ministerial debates and speeches.

 

The rhetorical pledge has also been complemented by a gradual uptick of meaningful Canadian engagement. There has been increased security co-operation from Canada over the past few years aimed at addressing regional security challenges in East Asia and beyond. One key example is the presence of the Canadian Armed Forces in the Pacific working alongside the US and other partners in Operation NEON, to prevent ship-to-ship transfers involving North Korean vessels that are intended to skirt United Nations Security Council sanctions placed on Pyongyang. Canada, working closely with the UK, Australia, the US and Japan, has patrol aircraft in the East China Sea. The aircraft, which operate out of Kadena air base in Okinawa, are a tangible example of growing security co-operation between Ottawa and key partners in the region.

 

Canada has also been active on the security front in other areas — including the role of the Canadian navy in several port calls, joint exercises and innocent passage sailings that underscore a shared commitment to the region’s norms and laws. Finally, there has been increased Canadian engagement in terms of trade and investment, with Canada now being the second-largest economy in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Ottawa has also looked to widen its economic hubs in the region through the free trade and/or investment initiatives with ASEAN, Taiwan and India.

 

Framing the Region and Canada’s Role

 

The Indo-Pacific as a geographic concept that connects the vast Pacific and Indian oceans along with the states in between is not a new geostrategic idea. Indeed, the idea of a broader geographic region — rather than more traditional subsets such as East Asia, South Asia, or the more expansive Asia-Pacific — has been used for more than a decade by scholars and practitioners in the region. An Indian naval captain began using the concept in geopolitical terms more than a decade ago, but the terminology has not been limited to scholars. Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during his first stint as prime minister in 2007, spoke to India’s parliament about his country’s vision for the Indo-Pacific, noting a “confluence of the two seas” and pressed for the need to transcend traditional frameworks that often separated or minimized the geopolitical connections between South Asia and the Indian Ocean region and that of East Asia and the Pacific.

 

While others have since developed Indo-Pacific approaches, it is crucial to remember that the intellectual origins of this kind of strategic thinking came from the region — especially from policymakers and officials from Japan, India and Australia — and will largely continue to evolve based on the strategic interests and resulting policy approaches from regional states. That said, other states invested in the Indo-Pacific have also been developing approaches in recent years, including the US, Germany, France, the UK, the Netherlands and others. These approaches, while not identical and obviously premised on unique national interests, largely converge on a range of shared pillars: principally the respect for maintaining a rules-based system in the region that prioritizes peaceful settlement of disputes and follows international law. All these approaches also underscore the importance of open and transparent infrastructure development so as not to burden donor-recipient countries in the region with heavy debt based on infrastructure projects that don’t serve their long-term interests.

 

The importance for understanding the regional origins of the Indo-Pacific concept, including its articulation as a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) first introduced by Japan, is essential to modify an incorrect — yet often stated — framing that FOIP is merely a hard stick created by the US to curtail the rise of China. This narrative, which is often spun by detractors of Canada’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy, misses the complexities of other states in the region and their shared interest in FOIP principles that are often aligned, but not completely congruent, with those of the US.

 

For Canada, the idea of framing the region in Indo-Pacific terms is in its nascent stages. Traditionally, the lens through which the region has been viewed is the “Asia-Pacific.” This traditional framing is understandable to some extent considering that the history and focal points of Canadian engagement have been premised on the multilateral forums through which it is engaged. Examples of this include Canada being a founding member of APEC and the ADB. Canada also is a longstanding dialogue partner with ASEAN and a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). More recently, Canada has joined other organizations, including the AIIB.

 

This multilateral underpinning of Canada’s engagement to date has been decidedly Asia-Pacific in its focus for the past several decades. Yet it has become increasingly clear that while many forums in which Canada has traditionally been engaged remain relevant, its approach to the region is antiquated and in need of significant policy evolution. Some detractors might argue that Canada should not look at developing an Indo-Pacific approach because it would betray our commitment and experience to organizations and partnerships centered on the Asia-Pacific, such as ASEAN and its related bodies. The short answer to these critiques, however, is that the development of an Indo-Pacific approach in line with principles of a free and open region are not mutually exclusive or meant to replace our traditional engagement in the region. On the contrary, the development of an Indo-Pacific approach would complement the stakes and interests Canada has in this pivotal region.

 

This telegraphing of a strategic purpose for Ottawa is of utmost importance to altering long-held — and often-deserved — perceptions from key regional stakeholders that Canada is largely disinterested in the geostrategic evolution and fast-changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. In this sense, the public diplomacy articulating the “why and how” behind its new strategy will be as important as the tangible deliverables and priority actions that are being built into the approach.

 

Canada’s Place in the Indo-Pacific

 

How should Canada become more involved in the emerging Indo-Pacific framework? First, it must assertively and unapologetically promote its interests and values in the region — most of which align closely to its key partners there such as the US, Japan and others. For example, if one examines the FOIP policies of Washington and Tokyo, one will find more convergence than divergence with regard to Canadian interests. The US strategy stresses the need to “promote transparency, openness, rule of law, and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedom.” Tokyo, meanwhile, stresses the importance of peace and stability in the region through common rules, open investment and the provision of international public goods. Most would agree these are rules and norms to which Canada also subscribes. A corollary to this is that greater engagement with the Indo-Pacific would help us further national areas of excellence in areas of preventive diplomacy, such as women, peace and security.

 

It would be incorrect to think, however, that the Indo-Pacific concept only appeals to a handful of states concerned about the rise of China and its often-revisionist approach to the region. In fact, several states both inside and on the peripheries of the Indo-Pacific have demonstrated a keen interest in developing a strategic approach to the region. In addition to resident powers such as Japan, India and Australia, there has been a steady uptick of interest from countries further afield including those in Europe. Within the past few years, several countries have either developed or announced approaches to the Indo-Pacific region including France, the Netherlands, the UK and Germany.

 

Second, Canada can manage both an effective and pragmatic relationship with China, and an enhanced engagement with the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing may be wary of the Indo-Pacific because of its tense relations with Washington under the Donald Trump administration, but it would be incorrect to label the different national approaches as a containment strategy aimed at China. Rather than alliance politics, this is a loose grouping of likeminded and progressive states that are standing up for a prosperous and stable region that follows rules and maintains a sustainable trajectory — not to benefit one, but to benefit the region as a whole. This is something Canada should stand up for, and it should not let its recent bilateral difficulties with Beijing distract it from the larger strategic dynamics playing out in the region.

 

Finally, just as engaging China and the Indo-Pacific framework are not mutually exclusive, so are the fundamentals of our existing engagements in the region. Ottawa will continue to be a key part of APEC, the ARF, ADB and other multilateral forums — with ASEAN at the core — but it need not pursue this road in isolation from co-operation that makes sense with regional partners and allies in the broader Indo-Pacific. After all, ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook prioritizes many of the same values and interests — the respect for international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes — that other regional approaches address.

 


Notes

1 “Prime Minister of Canada Announces Closer Collaboration with Japan,” Office of the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, April 28, 2019, pm.gc.ca/en/news/news-releases/2019/04/28/prime-minister-canada-announces-closer-collaboration-japan

2 “India-Canada Joint Statement,” Office of the Prime Minister of Canada, Feb. 23, 2018, pm.gc.ca/en/news/backgrounders/2018/02/ 23/india-canada-joint-statement-partnership-security-and-growth

3 “Japan-Canada Foreign Minister’s Meeting,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, May 3, 2021, www.mofa.go.jp/na/na1/ca/page4e_001128.html

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