This article originally appeared in the National Post.
By David McDonough, April 6, 2023
Recent intelligence leaks that revealed Chinese agents trying to manipulate Canadian election outcomes were just the latest wake-up call that the Beijing regime is not a responsible international stakeholder, let alone a trustworthy friend or partner of Canada.
Despite Ottawa’s stonewalling on confronting this particular issue, there is reason to hope. Canada has been moving, slowly and fitfully to be sure, in this direction: by banning Huawei from our 5G network, ending federal funding for research projects that involve Chinese military and security institutions, and forcing Chinese state-owned enterprises to divest their stakes in Canadian critical mineral companies.
Renewed efforts to create a foreign registry is very much in line with this trend. Whatever the motivation for this recent announcement, and clearly damage control is one of them, there is reason to believe the government will move forward on creating one — again, perhaps reluctantly, but the important point is that it gets done. Even Canada’s belated Indo-Pacific Strategy made the point of calling China “an increasingly disruptive global power” and a “strategic challenge,” which aligns with the general thrust of how our key allies’ view. One hopes the Defence Policy Update currently in development uses even more robust language and is backed up with additional funding.
This shift in the government’s approach towards China could not come sooner. Indeed, many of our allies and partners are further ahead of us in having a clear-eyed view of China as a threat to the rules-based global order.
The United States, our closest ally and security guarantor, increasingly sees China as an aggressive strategic competitor. Australia has taken the fateful step to acquire U.S.-made nuclear-powered attack submarines, which promises to be its most expensive procurement project to date and one that could fundamentally alter its navy’s fleet structure. Even Japan has finally broken its longstanding taboo on raising its defence budget above one per cent of GDP, with plans to double that to two per cent in five years time.
With new arrangements like the Quad (India, Japan, Australia, and the US) and AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) now placed alongside America’s existing hub-and-spoke alliance system, one can see the contours of a U.S.-led anti-hegemonic coalition — to use American strategist Elbridge Colby’s term — to stymie Beijing’s effort to achieve hegemony in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Much of the recent Sino-American diplomatic jockeying stems from this new reality. As China moves from merely obstructing the US in the Indo-Pacific to building a global order more conducive to its values and interests, one can see this contest playing out on a global scale — from China’s role in brokering restored relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, to China’s peace proposal for Ukraine, which was highlighted in Xi Jinping’s meeting with his “junior partner” Russia’s Vladimir Putin, to recent reports of China and the U.S. secretly battling to control undersea Internet cables around the world.
The stakes in this strategic competition could not be higher. As scholar Rush Doshi has so eloquently argued, China now seems intent on displacing the United States as a superpower. Having long ago thrown out Deng’s maxim of “hiding capabilities and biding time” and no longer content with Hu’s addendum of “actively accomplishing something,” China under Xi Jinping instead seeks to leverage these “great changes unseen in a century” — a nod to perceived American decline arising from the polarized Trump years and its disastrous COVID response — to emerge as “a leading country in comprehensive national strength and international influence.”
Yet, as Canada faces this new geostrategic reality, it needs to go beyond its half-hearted (albeit still welcome) efforts and more properly assess its own position and place in this incipient anti-hegemonic coalition — and it’s useful to start closer to home in its assessment.
The 1941 Kingston dispensation between Canada and the United States still holds. Simply put, we cannot become a security threat to our greatest security guarantor. Instead, we need to strengthen our societal resilience against foreign interference and disinformation from China and its allies, and ensure our security and intelligence services are adequately resourced to protect us from such threats. We cannot be a weak link in that chain.
We also have a key role in defending the continent in partnership with the Americans. That is perhaps our greatest military contribution to the anti-hegemonic coalition, as helping to secure the continent will allow the U.S. to focus more attention to the Indo-Pacific, especially military contingencies around Taiwan.
On that front, we must fully modernize the North Warning System (NWS) to a multi-domain system capable of protecting against new air-breathing and hypersonic threats, ensure our airspace is protected through a modernized NORAD, including investment in forward operating bases to support the 5th generation F-35 aircraft (as was recently announced during the Biden visit), and protect the Arctic from Russian and Chinese aggrandizement.
The latter will likely require important infrastructure improvements and procuring both heavy icebreakers for its Coast Guard and new submarines to replace the aging Victoria-class fleet; the submarines could either be nuclear-powered or, if that proves prohibitively expensive, have air-independent power (AIP) technology to increase the limited endurance of diesel subs. Non-nuclear vessels also have an important ancillary benefit beyond cost — by allowing us to continue providing training opportunities to a US Navy (USN) that lacks diesel submarines.
Canada should also move to finally join (and help fund) continental ballistic missile defence (BMD). While this might have little immediate relevance vis-à-vis China, given the latter’s ability to overwhelm any limited BMD system, it does carry important benefits against China’s nuclear-armed ally, North Korea — thereby helping to ensure the U.S. is not coerced into refraining from intervening in defence of South Korea or Japan by that country’s nuclear arsenal, which would weaken key elements of this anti-hegemonic coalition.
Beyond North America, Canada should maintain and even strengthen its traditional Atlantic ties with NATO and Europe, especially its presence in the enhanced Forward Presence in Latvia. Indeed, this deployment should eventually be buttressed with additional air and ground assets and be made long-term — as an important deterrent against future Russian aggression and, if that deterrent should fail, to increase the Baltic states’ capacity to withstand an initial Russian assault until a NATO counteroffensive is made.
Canada’s role here is also important when it comes to China. By helping to deter Russian aggression against NATO, we help minimize the chances of a catastrophic war in Europe that would assuredly involve the U.S. military in a significant way and serve as a drain on any anti-hegemonic coalition against China.
Canadian military support for Ukraine should also be viewed in such a framework. After all, by arming the Ukrainians, we are helping to ensure Russia’s military is further weakened — and that only strengthens NATO’s deterrence against them. In that regard, Canada can and should be doing more to militarily support Ukraine, including both ammunition and weapon systems; enhancing its munitions production and replenishing its own weapons stock are crucial in that regard.
Lastly, Canada needs to place greater attention on the Indo-Pacific. But we need to be realistic on our importance in this vast maritime theatre. Claims that Canada is a Pacific power ring hollow when more of our diplomatic, economic and military attention is rightly focused on North America and Europe. And Canada’s geo-strategic position and limited resources means that our attention will forever be split with these other locations.
For example, assuming adequate funding, Canada currently plans for a new fleet of 15 Canadian Surface Combatants — advanced warships that would be the sine qua non for a military presence in the Indo-Pacific theatre. Yet, even if its fleet structure prioritizes the Pacific over the Atlantic, Canada would likely have eight frigates on the West Coast, and no more than two-to-three would be readily available for deployment in the Pacific at any one time, perhaps supplemented by submarines that aren’t patrolling the Arctic.
While a significant boost on our current capacity for deployment, Canada’s Pacific fleet will remain largely a token force in comparison to regional countries like Japan and Australia or an extra-regional superpower like the United States — to say nothing of China, which already has the largest navy in the world and is building around 20 advanced naval warships each year.
Still, such a rebalanced fleet structure would prove useful. An increased naval presence could open the door to Canada participating in critical arrangements like the Quad or forums like the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting–Plus, while giving us a means to cooperate more closely with the USN in the region; for example, we could leverage our interoperability with the USN by permanently deploying a frigate in a US battlegroup and/or participating in freedom of navigation operations with the US and other allies.
Of course, with only two new logistics joint supply ships (JSS) on the horizon, Canada should also consider adding at least one more JSS to the West Coast — to enhance its logistics in this maritime environment.
Canada should also expand its partnership with countries like Japan and/or Singapore to acquire access to their naval facilities. This would increase its ability to undertake long-term naval deployment in the Western Pacific, tie us even more concretely to the incipient anti-hegemonic coalition, help buttress deterrence against China — and, if such deterrence fails, better ensures a strong response. After all, any outbreak of hostilities between the U.S. and China, over Taiwan for instance, could then directly involve Canada, given the proximity and location of its naval assets in the region (and the real danger that such allied naval bases might come under attack by a Chinese missile barrage).
To be sure, much depends on whether Ottawa ultimately provides its security and defence institutions with sufficient funding. At a minimum, Canada would need to ensure — even with possible cost overruns — that its plans to acquire 15 new surface combatants and 88 F-35s are fulfilled in a timely manner. Ideally, it should also procure new platforms like a submarine replacement (whether nuclear or AIP), heavy icebreakers for the Coast Guard, and an additional JSS to enhance our logistical capability in the Pacific. It would also entail funding for radar and/or interceptors (including possibly an interceptor site) for BMD, more resources for its security and intelligence services, and increasing its military aid to Ukraine. Even an upgraded NWS will likely need more funding than the promised $4.9 billion.
Canada’s defence budget would therefore need to increase over the next several years, especially as it pertains to the capital portion — given that this scenario puts a relatively stronger emphasis on capital-intensive air and naval power rather than ground forces.
The government has made some important strides in seeing the reality of today’s China, which is all the more striking given how rose-hued its original vision was about Beijing — a fact that only seemed to end when Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were unlawfully detained in 2018. One should give it credit where credit is due. But more still needs to be done.
As Sino-American strategic competition evolves in the coming years, China’s diplomatic sway and military power will likely become even more formidable than it is today. It is not guaranteed the U.S. will even win this competition, as it has never faced a peer competitor with China’s economic heft; neither Germany and Japan nor the Soviet Union at its zenith had that economic power. As such, the United States will likely be asking more from its allies and partners, including Canada.
Let’s be clear: the time Canada could free ride on American security guarantees is coming to an end. Harder choices will need to be made — from funding to force structure to military deployments. The ongoing Defence Policy Update will serve as a crucial bellwether on this issue. One only hopes Canadian decision-makers are ready to face this new reality.
David S. McDonough is Senior Editor at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.