By Andrew Erskine, May 25, 2022
With its military support for Ukraine, economic sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his oligarchs, and reinforced commitments to NATO, Canada has once again re-emerged as a prominent international stakeholder. This has coincided with growing discussions in Canada on the need to invest in infrastructure, assets, and capabilities in the Arctic.
With this newfound vision of Canada playing prominent roles in securing and defending its eastern and northern flanks, it is far past due for Canada to realize its potential on its western flank – the Indo-Pacific.
Although Global Affairs Canada announced the development of its comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy, which has yet to be released but is expected will recommend a deepening of economic, defence, and diplomatic cooperation with like-minded partners in the region, Canada remains largely inept in defining its regional interests, particularly when it comes to security and defence.
According to Indo-Pacific experts and scholars, Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy needs to reinforce its economic position and facilitate economic diversification in the region while curbing China’s coercive tactics, which often entail threats to hinder access to its large market.
Canada lacks treaty commitments to key regional powers, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Instead, Canadian policy-makers anchor the nation’s security and defence interests onto pre-existing strategies of prominent and closely-aligned regional powers. For instance, Canada remains involved in Operation Neon, a multinational effort to uphold the UN sanctions against North Korea, and participates in the anti-submarine Sea Dragon exercise alongside six other Indo-Pacific nations, including the four Quad members (US, India, Japan, and Australia). Canada has also signed the “Shared Canada-Japan Priorities Contributing to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” an initiative that focuses on the rule of law, peacekeeping operations, peace-building, and humanitarian assistance.
Canadian policy-makers need to shift away from relying on the strategies of its allies towards a more external looking approach – one that safeguards its security interests through pragmatic and realistic strategies that acknowledge Canada’s geopolitical position in the Indo-Pacific order. What is more, Canada should refrain from seeking membership in the Quad or the AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) groupings until it more fully devotes its military and economic assets and capabilities to the Indo-Pacific.
Canada also needs to better acknowledge its geopolitical position in the region’s hierarchical order and comprehend the power disparity among states in the Indo-Pacific – specifically, how great power competition will impact its security and defence interests and how engaging other middle powers can better improve its strategy in the region.
A Canadian Indo-Pacific strategy should acknowledge the country’s hierarchical position within a five-tier hierarchical order – consisting of small, minor, middle, major, and great powers. Canada should reinforce its “middle-range” positional traits when it comes to its military, economy, and diplomacy. In doing so, Canada can highlight the complexity of the region’s power disparity while legitimizing the existence of a middle-tier of power that is inseparable from regional governance.
In devising its strategy, Canada should acknowledge that it lacks the military and diplomatic infrastructure, assets, and capabilities to project its interests onto regional powers, partners and adversaries alike. This is not to say that Canada is unable to engage in the region’s security architecture. Instead, it simply means that Canada should recognize that it devotes insufficient resources to the Indo-Pacific, a shortcoming magnified by its lack of experience engaging with the region’s varying state actors.
As a partial remedy, Canada should enlarge its involvement in the Five Eyes intelligence partnership by contributing technological and financial resources to widen the group’s Indo-Pacific scope. Moreover, Canada should reinforce its participation with like-minded partners in naval operations geared toward maintaining the Indo-Pacific’s rules-based order. Canada needs to recognize that the region will witness deepening maritime competition in the form of naval proliferation, specifically the increasing quality and tonnage of naval ships among all Indo-Pacific powers.
Participating in initiatives that promote and protect sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and freedom of navigation (FON), along with deepening the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) readiness and capabilities for maritime conflict, are essential to elevating Canada’s role in the Indo-Pacific’s security architecture.
Although Indo-Pacific experts, most particularly Stephen Nagy, identify Japan, India, and Australia as regional middle powers, their recent moves to stop China’s hegemonic rise – creating new economic blocs and explicitly supporting the status quo of US regional dominance – indicate that their rank within the region’s hierarchy is more associated with that of major powers.
This fact is reinforced by Australia signing onto the AUKUS deal to acquire nuclear submarines based on America’s Virginia-class or Britain’s Astute-class vessels while establishing more sweeping technological interoperability between the US and UK; Japan ending its policy of quiescence by considering a substantial hike in its defence spending and former Prime Minister Abe’s consideration of housing America’s nuclear assets on Japanese soil; and India intensifying its efforts to sell weapons to Southeast Asia and Africa. Lastly, the pre-eminence of the US to designate these three actors as indispensable partners in the Indo-Pacific should signal Washington’s perspective that these three states are major Indo-Pacific powers.
In the short-term, Canada should strengthen its external relationships with fellow middle powers in the Indo-Pacific, alongside its traditional partners. Traditionally, middle powers have strategized their well-being with a rules-based order’s relative success and prosperity. To continue this strategy, Canada should approach prominent middle powers like Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand to establish a discrete middle power bloc that will project the values and norms of a rules-based order into regional discussions on deepening great power and strategic competition.
These blocs should take a multinational and minilateral form to bolster Canada’s military and diplomatic ties with these Indo-Pacific’s middle powers. Moreover, the blocs can be structured around multiple 2+2 dialogues, a growing Indo-Pacific trend.
In these blocs, middle powers will create bilateral associations in which their foreign and defence departments can work together to address vital security concerns. This can be done through shift mechanisms that better integrate their defence, security, and intelligence apparatuses while limiting the bureaucratic baggage that accompanies large and complex multilateral groupings. These dialogues also permit middle powers to rapidly address shifts and strategic pivots from top-tier powers in the region as contestation occurs.
Forging these blocs will also permit Canada to gain more first-hand knowledge of regional affairs, governance, and security postures and set the ground for naval and technological infrastructure that will allow Canada to widen its geopolitical footprint in the region. As a result, Canada could establish strategic hubs that will dock and supply the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and diplomatically extend Canada’s presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Canada should also recall its experience in North America next to a global superpower, with whom it shares a significant trading relationship and has had territorial disputes over the Northwest Passage. This provides important insight on the Indo-Pacific dilemma of balancing both US security assurances and the benefits of economic engagement with China.
In the medium- to long-term, Canada should reinforce its diplomatic and military capabilities and align them with its regional engagement strategy, allowing it to better defend against and deter top-tier powers in the region. These objectives should see Canada invest more substantially in the RCN, including by launching an Indo-Pacific Command Centre along its West coast and prioritizing its planned fleet of 15 Canada Surface Combatants to the Pacific. The RCN must also be equipped with modern naval weapons and operational systems that provide sweeping offensive capabilities in all three areas of naval warfare – conventional, unconventional, and hybrid.
Canada has long been seen as inconsistent in its strategic engagement in the Indo-Pacific. To overcome such shortcomings, Canada needs to independently shape its interests and role in influencing the regional security architecture. A Canadian Indo-Pacific strategy that incorporates updated middle power notions and capabilities with an understanding of the region’s complexity will demonstrate Canada’s resolve in maintaining a maritime rules-based order.
Andrew Erskine is a research analyst at the NATO Association of Canada, a researcher at the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers, a political analyst at The New Global Order and a Analyst Director with the NATO Research Group.