In the age of Trump, Canada and Australia need to re-examine their strategic relationship as middle powers and “strategic cousins,” writes John Blaxland. Both countries need to work together to remain trusted and close allies of the United States.
This article is part of a new series of Inside Policy posts that will explore different aspects of global security – in a continuation of MLI’s Global Security Look Ahead project.
By John Blaxland, March 1, 2017
For more than seventy-five years, Australia and Canada have looked to the United States as their primary security guarantors. Increasingly both have also looked to the Asia-Pacific for their economic prosperity.
As predominantly English-speaking, New World melting pots of largely Western, liberal, democratic, and free-trading societies, Australia and Canada have much in common. Historians, economists, anthropologists, and political scientists have mined the commonalities of these ‘strategic cousins’ for decades.
Both Canada and Australia have long sought close security ties with the United States. In Canada’s case, this has been largely as a means to ensure “defence against help” from its much more powerful southern neighbour. In the case of Australia, with a deep-seated sense of insecurity, it has been about keeping them close by – a relationship in which Australia is a dependent ally. The end result is that Australians and Canadians have bumped into each other in places as far and wide as the South African Veldt, the battlefields of Flanders, in the Second World War and Korea, on peacekeeping operations from Egypt to East Timor, and again more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Inspired by Canadian political scientist Kim Richard Nossal, my colleague Andrew Carr has written about Australia as a middle power. As notes, for middle-sized countries, like Canada and Australia, “periods of flux and uncertainty are the times of greatest opportunity.” He further observed that, with the end of the Second World War and again with the end of the Cold War, middle powers enjoyed their greatest influence. “New ideas, new institutions and new relationships are formed at times like these.” Given the state of flux in early 2017, it is worth re-examining Australia’s ties with Canada to consider relationships that merit further development.
The risk of regional instability in the Pacific has been growing due to China’s re-emergence as a great power, continued speculation about US strategic engagement in Asia, and increased competition over maritime boundaries.
The risk of regional instability in the Pacific has been growing due to China’s re-emergence as a great power, continued speculation about US strategic engagement in Asia, and increased competition over maritime boundaries. These developments were explored in more depth in a paper that I co-authored in 2014, Facing West Facing North. What is clear, however, is that these trends have only accelerated in the last few years.
More to the point, they also provide opportunities for collaboration between countries like Canada and Australia. Non-traditional security threats, including natural disasters, climate change, food security, and cyber security point to a range of areas where the two countries can work more closely together. Together, Canada and Australia could help strengthen regional security, bolster regional governance mechanisms, enhance bilateral defence cooperation, and boost defence industry and economic cooperation.
The Australia-Canada Leadership Forum, for example, provides one avenue to bring business, government, and academia together. Canada and Australia are part of the ‘five-eyes’ intelligence community that dates back to the Second World War. The links associated with this network have profound significance in the way Canada and Australia interact with each other and the options for closer collaboration. Their military chiefs often meet either in Ottawa or Canberra, and Canadian and Australian contingents participate together in a range of exercises and operations. Yet there remains room for closer collaboration, particularly as both countries look to develop a new generation of naval vessels, integrate the next generation of military aircraft, and continue to operate far from their own shores in remote places including in the Middle East but also in the Pacific.
It is more accurate to observe that Australia, like Canada, acts largely as an independent player, albeit with the weight of the alliance hanging on its shoulders.
Despite rhetorical criticism of Australia’s purported blind allegiance to the United States from some quarters, it is more accurate to observe that Australia, like Canada, acts largely as an independent player, albeit with the weight of the alliance hanging on its shoulders.
As Australia and Canada consider their options they need to be mindful of the nature of their alliance ties with the United States. Both are heavily invested in their US security ties, with a breadth and depth to their respective bilateral relationships that most people do not realise. Reflecting an investment that spans generations, Australia and Canada today have highly-capable, sophisticated, and versatile (albeit small) defence forces able to respond rapidly to a wide range of contingencies. This is possible to a considerable degree due to close collaboration with their US counterparts, which enables ready access to US technologies, intelligence, communications, and logistics networks. The emphasis on interoperability with the United States also means they are highly interoperable with each other.
Australian and Canadian politicians recognise that their respective US alliances are about shared national interests, yet their public declarations almost invariably focus on the idea of shared or common values. Commonalities in culture, language, and security ties are compelling and enduring. That commonality is particularly evident when witnessing these countries’ military forces working together. And yet, the Trump administration’s focus only on “America first,” with its emphasis on a transactional approach to national interests above all else, appears to have weakened the strength of this argument.
In practical terms, as Australia considers the rise of China, one of the most pressing issues concerns the situation in the South China Sea today. Most in Canada and Australia recognise there is little prospect, short of war, in undoing China’s achievements there – achievements that include the construction of military-grade facilities on several human-made islands atop contested shoals. Following its “century of humiliation,” China’s rise this century points to a future of which the country can be immensely proud. But recovering from its past humiliation does not mean the South China Sea’s contiguous states and the world’s principal security guarantor need to be subject to a commensurate humiliation either. There is a fine line to be drawn.
Despite the uncertainty generated by the Trump administration, there is a broad consensus within Australia’s national security apparatus that the best way for Australia to influence events and avoid the prospects of escalation of tensions into open conflict is to remain a trusted and close partner of the United States, able to share its views frankly and firmly. This seems to be the approach the Canadian government under Justin Trudeau seeks to take as well.
Australia and Canada must work to assist the United States to recognise peacefully the limits to its power and influence without triggering a more isolationist impulse.
Australia and Canada must work to assist the United States to recognise peacefully the limits to its power and influence without triggering a more isolationist impulse and without appearing to undermine the importance of America’s role in global security affairs. In the past, Australians and Canadians have tended to pursue this approach directly with the United States. In these uncertain times, and with more in common than many realise, the imperative for cross-pollination of ideas between these middle power strategic cousins is greater than ever.
At the same time, Australia and Canada must continue to engage with China constructively, respectfully and with an open hand, with a view to more fully understand China’s intentions and to encourage a mutually beneficial accommodation.
John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. Twitter: @JohnBlaxland1