Canada’s “Indo-Pacific” future? Not so fast.
Perhaps the most salient dynamic in international relations in recent years has been the deteriorating relationship between China and the United States – a situation which has brought direct consequences for Canada. Damaged prospects for Canada-China trade and the standoff over Meng Wanzhou’s arrest are less evidence of specific disputes and more the result of Ottawa’s failure to craft an overarching strategic paradigm to guide Canadian foreign policy in an era of rival great powers.
Canada should use the four years of the Biden presidency to identify its core interests, craft a more involved role for itself in Asia, and prepare for uncertainty in US foreign policy beyond 2024. Interestingly, Canada’s most important partner in this endeavour may lie outside the Asia-Pacific region.
Last month, more than 74 million Americans cast their ballot for Donald Trump – more than any other candidate in American history has received other than Joe Biden. Trumpism has not been definitively repudiated, pointing to a possible long-term divergence between Canadian and US political cultures and global interests. While the US may have a perceived interest in locking the Asia-Pacific theatre into a binary great power competition aimed at arresting China’s rise, Canada benefits from an open and rules-based regional trading environment. And while Ottawa retains an interest in a stable European security order – the absence of which also affects Canadian sovereignty and security in the Arctic given Russia’s presence in both theatres – Washington has grown more interested in co-opting Europe into its struggle with Beijing rather than underwriting Euro-Atlantic security for its own sake.
While the US may have a perceived interest in locking the Asia-Pacific theatre into a binary great power competition aimed at arresting China’s rise, Canada benefits from an open and rules-based regional trading environment.
Ottawa will have to find an equilibrium between planning for elements of long-term divergence with Washington on foreign policy with the possibility of short-term convergence during the tenure of the Biden administration. It is reasonable to assume that President Trump’s eviction from the White House will create a more amicable and predictable dynamic across most (but not all) facets of Canada-US relations. Some have even suggested that US-China relations could be headed for a “mini-détente” after Biden’s inauguration.
However, it is equally possible that the Sino-American confrontation has already acquired its own self-sustaining momentum. Issues such as regional security, multilateral institutions and technology have reflexively become tests of relative American or Chinese influence. Ottawa must weigh the official pronouncements of the Biden administration – which, in many cases, are more likely to reflect a change in tone and in Washington’s level of engagement than a fundamental shift in policy – against the likely course of this disembodied dynamic.
The Chinese Communist Party’s decision to treat the coronavirus pandemic as a national security crisis and an existential challenge to Beijing’s international standing has produced increasingly tense relations between China and many of its neighbours. This has led to growing interest in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) paradigm among actors both within the region and beyond. However, while many leading Asian states – ranging from Japan and South Korea to India and the Philippines – are interested in the United States as a security provider, this does not imply that they are eager fully to choose sides in a US-China cold war.
Claims advanced by supporters of FOIP that the concept is not directed against China are implausible. Similar assertions have been made that NATO expansion is not directed against Russia but rather is aimed at underwriting regional security and safeguarding democracy. However, admitting a country to NATO is equivalent to promising to defend it militarily – and it is difficult to imagine against whom one is promising to defend Eastern European countries other than Russia. Similarly, the “Indo-Pacific” maritime imaginary – two oceans connected by way of the Strait of Malacca adjacent to the South China Sea – is evidently designed to hedge against the potential consequences of China’s rise as a naval power.
Advocates for Canada’s adopting of the FOIP concept perhaps overlook a crucial fact: Unlike other regional players, whose attempts to balance between US security guarantees and Chinese economic benefits have been visible and robust for some time, Canada is seen as being too close to the United States and not active and invested enough in regional security issues. Such political proximity to Washington likely played a role in Canada’s failed UN Security Council bid earlier this year. (Disclosure: I played a small role in that bid as a speechwriting consultant.) Rather than up Canada’s regional presence, it is possible that embracing FOIP could further sideline Ottawa from core regional dynamics and damage prospects for Canadian trade diversification.
Unlike other regional players, whose attempts to balance between US security guarantees and Chinese economic benefits have been visible and robust for some time, Canada is seen as being too close to the United States and not active and invested enough in regional security issues.
The Quad – a security partnership bringing together India, Japan and Australia in addition to the US – serves the interests of its members by enabling them to buttress their mixed but nonetheless developed relations with China with credible external security considerations. Australia has no qualms about asserting its presence as an integral member of the Asian system of states. Canada’s foreign policy, by contrast, remains heavily centred on its North American and European vectors, with the Asian vector still heavily underdeveloped.
Given Canada’s strong support for multilateralism and its psychological orientation toward Europe, the EU represents a natural Canadian ally on Asian affairs. Like Ottawa, Brussels is attempting to increase its presence in Asia through a balanced approach that views Beijing both as a systemic rival and a potential partner. With Brexit having left NATO’s most significant military powers – the US, the UK and Turkey – outside the EU, a Canada-EU dialogue on Asia would present an opportunity to strengthen the Ottawa-Brussels strategic partnership, develop the unique features of the Canada-EU relationship, and secure a more mature role for Canada in European affairs beyond its contributions to NATO.
This Canada-EU strategic dialogue could also be expanded to include both sides’ shared interest in a stable and more predictable relationship with Russia – the contours of which have yet to be defined since the collapse of friendly ties after Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution – as well as Eurasian connectivity issues in selective partnership with key Asian actors. The latter would reflect an understanding of the increasingly interconnected nature of European and Asian economic and security dynamics, which in turn would help Ottawa to craft a more kinetic and comprehensive approach to security issues in the Euro-Atlantic and Pacific theatres which it abuts and in which it retains an abiding interest in stability.
With Ottawa and Washington appearing in many respects to be on a long-term trajectory toward divergent foreign policy interests, Canada would be wise to cultivate an independent – and less antagonistic – posture in the Asia-Pacific region rather than pre-emptively tie itself to a concept advanced by the US. Although Canada should work to deepen ties with actors across the board to reverse its paltry regional presence, the development of a more sophisticated Canadian strategic culture requires that Ottawa move beyond values-based attempts to identify “like-minded countries” and carefully consider with whom it shares core strategic interests.