Almost 60 years ago, Donald Horne titled his Australian classic, The Lucky Country. The title was tinctured with cynicism. Horne was not altogether persuaded that his continental home was as conventionally lucky as many might have assumed. In many ways, he might just as well have been writing about Canada. Canada, vast, prosperous, and military indigestible; flanked as it is by three oceanic moats and standing next to a hugely powerful and largely benign neighbour, the United States.
But Canada is a nation adrift, lacking vision, energy, and a sense of urgency. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced, following his first election victory, that “Canada was back,” his assertion was deemed little short of risible by many foreign policy analysts. Far from being a major world player, commensurate with its global ranking, successive governments have allowed Canada to become irrelevant to the point of invisibility, and no more so than in the Indo-Pacific region.
Regrettably, the Canadian public is – broadly speaking – entitled, naive, complacent, and uninformed. For its part, Ottawa is a self-satisfied and provincial city with a resident bureaucracy that is uniquely adept at generating excuses for its inadequate performance. Sadly, one has only to review the history of defence acquisition in Canada to see this phenomenon illustrated in spades.
The COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine should have come as a powerful wake-up call, highlighting the need for more dynamic and assertive national policies. The latter has enormous ramifications but the national response has been miniscule; four artillery pieces for a country two-thirds the size of British Columbia. This is paralysis gussied up as prudence. There has been other military aid to Ukraine, but, for the most part, Canada has gone back to business as usual.
But these are unusual, even existential, times. The nation is now part of a worldwide struggle to defend the rules-based order, uphold democracy, and reinforce our value system. If we fail in Ukraine, we will pay a huge price with a triumphalist Russia and an emboldened China. Indeed, the global balance of power is in jeopardy.
This, of course, is not a commentary on Ukraine per se, but a commentary on Canada’s place in the Indo-Pacific order, although the two theatres are intimately connected. Canada has a less than stellar record in the Indo-Pacific region. While the trade “pie” continues to grow, Canada’s share of that pie remains constant or has even shrunk. The prime minister’s three visits to Asia can only be described, politely, as disastrous. I hesitate to guess who must have advised him in preparation for his meetings. Whoever it was, they failed him just as disastrously.
This failure is part of a much larger litany of shortcomings when it comes to Canada’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific. One could argue that the Madam Meng affair and the subsequent unjustified incarceration of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor by China caused the government to stay its hand. Fair enough. But the inadequacy of successive governments’ response to the opportunities and challenges represented by the region could be said to be endemic.
Global Affairs Canada has become increasingly marginalized and weakened over the years, while governments have only dithered and delayed in their approach to the Indo-Pacific. The upshot is that there is a deeply disturbing dearth of foreign policy white papers outlining Canadian priorities vis-a-vis the region and serving as the point of departure for the Department of National Defence and other federal departments.
This, of course, is not to say that articulating policies relative to the enormously disparate region is an easy task. The difficulty of reconciling Canadian values with those of many Asian interlocutors is a perennial problem. China is a highly seductive marketplace, but the Chinese Communist Party – that strange amalgam of Marx, Mao, and the mafia – has a pronounced proclivity for bullying and blackmail that should cause us to think twice (or thrice) about depending very heavily on that economy despite its size and appeal.
As it is, China constitutes only about 4 percent of our trade (unlike the frightening degree of exposure enjoyed by Australia) and, thus, is not as critical to our well-being as we might first imagine. The targeted diversification of trade recommends itself as a strategy as more and more mid-sized Indo-Pacific states begin to develop their economies.
But there is much more to the picture than trade and trade delegations. There is presence and persistence. Why, we might ask ourselves, was Canada not invited to join the Quad, the four-power defence and security arrangement linking the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Why was there thundering and complete silence when the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States) collaborative defence agreement was struck recently? Not a mention of Canada. Why was Canada conspicuously absence from US President Joe Biden’s announcement of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework during his recent visit to Tokyo? The list goes on.
The reason is lack of presence. We want to be at the table, but we are not prepared to do what the Australians call “the hard yards.” Time after time Canada is AWOL. I often say to my senior colleagues, “You may ask yourselves why you came all of this way, but if you didn’t come your absence would be noted.” Right across Asia, Canadians are seen as nice people but absent. Building a presence takes time, it takes money, and it takes persistence – especially in a place as geographically distant as Asia (yet another reason why London or Paris is more attractive to Ottawa mandarins than Singapore or Sydney). These prescriptions are not unique to the Indo-Pacific although, arguably, they are more important there, where personal relationships are a key determinant.
These are not merely reputational issues. Hard security is involved in a region that is now widely acknowledged as the global centre of gravity. At a time when the Pentagon is attempting to reposition American forces to meet “peer competitors” in Asia and when rumors are seeping out of Washington that Canada is an unreliable security partner, we need to be focused mightily on fulfilling our burden-sharing commitments and determining what our role would be in the event of hostilities. Self-evidently, these matters involve some very difficult decisions in terms of diplomacy, defence, logistics, and national priorities.
Perhaps geography has something to do with our unimpressive track record in the region. There seems to be an unconscious Columbian world view in Ottawa – that when you go to the West coast you fall off the edge of the world. Facetiousness aside, the Rocky Mountains do seem to constitute a perceptual and intellectual barrier. The Indo-Pacific is somehow too far away. It’s all too difficult to grasp. There is no NATO. The languages are challenging, the customs are different, and there is no reassuring “community” as there is in Europe.
All these arguments are true, but they are, effectively, after the event. What we don’t have is leadership, vision, and a real sense of urgency. If we want to engage the Indo-Pacific fully, we have to have real and consistent commitment. Only then will we be recognized as a legitimate actor. Otherwise, we’re simply fooling ourselves.
James Boutilier is a Distinguished Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the former Special Advisor (Policy) at Canada’s Maritime Forces Pacific Headquarters in Esquimalt, British Columbia.