July 1 marked Canada’s 154th anniversary. Its history, culture, politics and economy are rooted in its European past and its North American geographic location. These contours have shaped its diplomacy, economic growth and political orientation.
Today, the world looks a lot different than it did in 1867. While Canada’s economy is still largely wedded to the North American continent, it is the Indo-Pacific region that has become the economic engine of global growth. It is home to the two largest trading agreements, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
The region is home to serious traditional and nontraditional security challenges such as assertive behavior by China in the East and South China Seas (ECS and SCS), the quashing of international agreements such as the Sino-British Joint Declaration protecting freedom of press and the independence of the judicial system in Hong Kong, weapons of mass destruction proliferation by North Korea, challenges to the rules-based order, transnational diseases and climate change.
These challenges will not stay in the region without a sustained, strategically engaged Canada. Canada’s next 150 years will be shaped by the success or failure of a free and open Indo-Pacific. This will require partnerships, leadership and working with Indo-Pacific stakeholders to understand what they want from Canada.
Canada’s first forays into the region were through Christian missionaries and diplomats such as H.E. Norman in Japan and Dr. Henry Norman Bethune in China. The former served as a diplomat in Japan, forging strong ties that remain today. The latter joined Mao Zedong’s ragtag communist fighters in Yan’an, the home of today’s Communist Party.
During WWII and the Korean war, many Canadians died fighting Imperial Japanese troops in Asia and North Koreans and Chinese on the Korean peninsula. Today, Canada counts Japan and South Korea among its closest friends in the region.
Canada’s interests in the region pivoted to trade following Japan’s high speed growth period. This interest deepened as China ended decades of domestic instability and initiated its reform and opening phase under Deng Xiaoping.
Trade became the central pillar of Canadian efforts in the region, with Canada being a founding member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 1989. It also became a member of the ASEAN Region Forum, promoting open dialogue on political and security cooperation in the region in 1993.
Since 2017, Canada has been involved in Operation NEON, a coordinated multinational effort to support the implementation of United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed against North Korea. Canada has also increased and regularized its naval presence in the region, such as having the HMSC Ottawa transit through the Taiwan Straits, the having the HMCS Regina make a port call in Vietnam and through joint exercises with Japan in the South China Sea in July 2019.
Most recently, Canada joined the multilateral anti-submarine exercises Sea Dragon 2021 operation alongside the “Quad” members. The Quad-plus arrangement may be a template for other like-minded countries to find opportunities to cooperate in contributing to peace and stability in the region.
On May 3, Ottawa and Tokyo announced the “Shared Canada-Japan Priorities Contributing to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” The shared priorities include: focusing on the rule of law, peacekeeping operations, peace-building and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, health security and responding to COVID-19, and environment and climate change among others. What is clear is Canada aims to provide public goods to the Indo-Pacific region with like-minded partners like Japan.
These and other core areas are consistent with Canada’s (and Japan’s) middle power identity and enduring commitment to ensuring that a rules-based order is how states engage with each other rather than a might is right, Machiavellian approach to international affairs.
Securing Canada’s place in the Indo-Pacific requires partners. Intuitively, a democracy-first approach to partnerships is both consistent with Canada’s commitment to democracy and liberal values. Japan, Australia, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and the U.S. are natural partners as they have shared values, similar institutions and an interest in a rules-based order.
The problem with this approach is that it excludes many resident stakeholders in the region that will be necessary to solve the challenges facing the region.
Countries like Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and even India are either not democracies or are flawed hybrid democracies. Stressing democracy as a cornerstone of Canada’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific will alienate partners that will be needed to deal with issues in the ECS, SCS, or cross-straits relations.
Sustainable partnerships in the Indo-Pacific should not be based solely on shared interests and shared political values . Canada must recognize that problem solving and opportunity maximization will require resident stakeholders of all political stripes.
On climate change, nuclear proliferation and A.I. governance, China must be a central partner despite the current contentious Canadian-China relations. Canada must develop functional domains that it can cooperate with China on.
Any enduring Canadian Indo-Pacific strategy will require a Canadian brand independent of the U.S. and other partners in the region. Without an independent brand, resident Indo-Pacific stakeholders will not see Canada as an honest, independent stakeholder in the region.
Here, Canadian leadership matters. Leading a middle power commission to discuss North Korea denuclearization, COVID-19 vaccine distribution, climate change or A.I. governance are a few areas that could be addressed. The precedent has already been set with the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, a coalition to push back against hostage diplomacy and economic coercion.
Other middle powers see this kind of initiative critical to finding collective solutions to the growing challenges associated with the U.S.-China deteriorating relationship.
Partners, leadership and Canadian Indo-Pacific brand are critical pillars to any sustained Indo-Pacific strategy but so is understanding what Indo-Pacific stakeholders want from Canada.
Often heard in capitals throughout the region is Canada is not consistent in its engagement in the region and is not visible. Moreover, and as difficult as it is to hear, many leaders in the region find Canada’s progressive values to be fine for Canada and Canadian society but should have no place in Canada’s diplomacy in the region.
In the case of viability and engagement, Canada needs to mobilize Canadians and Canadian businesses throughout the Indo-Pacific to highlight their contributions to the region. Supporting a joint Indo-Pacific Canadian Chamber of Commerce or forming an Indo-Pacific-based but Canadian-funded think tank or university of the Indo-Pacific are ways to concretely demonstrate Canada’s presence and contributions to the region.
Canada also needs to be an idea generator and agenda setter based on Canada’s comparative advantages. Energy security, enhancing good governance, rule-of-law, environmental management, education-access and health security are areas of need in the region that Canada can provide meaningful and sustainable public goods to the region.
A Canadian free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, partners, leadership and knowing what stakeholders want of Canada in the region will be necessary for Canada to prosper from the opportunities and challenges in the Indo-pacific in its next 150 years.
Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.
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