As more and more powers jockey for influence in the Indo-Pacific, Canada launched its long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy, implicating a shift in its foreign policy agenda. The strategy document launched on November 27 envisions the critical role the region will play in shaping Canada’s future. “Acting in Canada’s National Interests complying with its values” is the central tenet of the strategy.
The emerging international order bears witness to the reality that economic interdependence cannot prevent war or build an undisputed foundation to conflict resolution. In fact, economic interdependence has been used by emboldened authoritarian countries like China to further their geopolitical interests by downplaying international norms rules and norms.
Hence Canada, which in the recent past came under a critical scanner for aiming to only promote economic diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific without broadly defining its defence and security objectives, came up with an Indo-Pacific Strategy that calls for a “generational shift” in Canada’s foreign policy. The 26 page document offers a comprehensive framework of Canada’s roadmap to engage with the region outlining five strategic objectives centring on peace, security, trade, investment, and a more dynamic and proactive Canada.
Canada’s strategy document positions itself in the middle of the grand bargain of major powers underlining a cautious two-pronged China strategy based on selective opposition and selective cooperation. The document marks Canada’s first strategic pushback against China after their relations turned frosty during the tenure of President Xi Jinping. The strategy calls for “profound disengagement” with “disruptive power ” China, in areas of human rights violation, international norms violation, military offensive and economic coercion implicitly hinting at China’s disregard for UN rulings on disputes in the South China sea and its action to further militarize and challenge navigation and overflight rights.
Further, Canada’s highlighted reference to tackling China’s coercive measures, stems from its own experience of bearing the impact of coercive diplomacy and non-trade market practices such as forced labour. China’s increasing reluctance to comply with the mandates of the UN such as blocking the UN High Commissioner for Human Right’s report on the situation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang has further enhanced the concern among stakeholder nations.
In June this year, Defense Minister Anita Anand while speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, flagged Canada’s concerns wherein she denounced China’s practice of coercive diplomacy, irresponsible state-sponsored cyber activity, and theft of international property and sensitive technology. In the recent past, Canada was compelled to issue directives to Canadian tourists and the business community to account for the growing risk of arbitrary Chinese laws. In a nutshell, the strategy is directed against policies and behaviour that defy the existing rules-based international order that undermine Canada’s national interests.
Events like President Xi’s public scolding of Canadian PM Justin Trudeau during a G20 meeting in Bali, reports of China’s clandestine interference in Canada’s election to push ahead candidates affiliated with the CCP, Chinese nationals operating an illegal network of Chinese police stations in Canada, and China conducting “dangerous interceptions” of Royal Canadian Air force (RCAF) security missions, further revealed the points of friction between the two governments. Xi’s dubious commitment to work with regional players for a stable Asia Pacific and CCP’s hegemonic ambitions left little room for addressing differences through dialogue. Canada’s “evolving” approach to China adopting harder measures might be the starting point of slow and steady decoupling from China.
However, the document stresses the importance of inevitably “cooperating” with China, given the size and span of its economy to address issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, global health and nuclear proliferation. Aligning with the key democratic stakeholders in the region like the United States, European Union, and Australia, Canada aims to pursue a multifaceted engagement with Taiwan ,in areas of trade, technology, democratic governance, health, and countering disinformation.
Weeks before launching the strategy document Canadian delegation visited Taipei, voicing support for its membership in the World Health Organization and International Civil Aviation Organization. As the strategy promises a larger military footprint in the Indo-Pacific region to ensure “peace” and “stability” , it will ensure an added security cushion for Taiwan. Defying China’s position, Canada resolves to defend the status quo of the Taiwan Strait against any unilateral action.
Chinese media deplored and rejected Canada’s blunt Indo-Pacific strategy calling it an “antithesis of multilateralism” which would eventually harm regional inclusivity. Further, it stressed Canada’s asymmetrical capability, misjudgement of regional dynamic reality, and aggressive tones and ignorance toward China would eventually harm its objective to collaborate with regional players.
Canada’s tough China talks have raised questions about its membership in the QUAD in the near future. Although the leadership has remained silent on this aspect, the rolled-out strategy does underline Canada’s ties with all the QUAD countries. Particularly while mentioning India as a “crucial partner” the strategy commits to working out a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. In the recent past, the Business Council of Canada acknowledged the importance of building stronger and enduring economic ties with India to achieve success in the Indo-Pacific.
As Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy aims to expand its involvement in the security horizon it must commit to boosting its defence posture. Canada is required to review its defence policy and improve its defence procurement system taking into account the new foreign policy direction. Further, Canada is facing a crisis of recruitment and retention in the Canadian armed forces. The current number of “trained effective” regulars is just over 53,000 which is below the set target of 20,000 by the government.
At present Canada’s diplomatic rhetoric does offer an outline of its objectives but the implementation process would require a more proactive, dynamic and engaged Canada devoted to the existing security challenges and gaps in the region.