A Canadian Indo-Pacific strategy must link aspiration to pragmatism
27 May 2022|

On 3 May last year, Canada and Japan signed a joint vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. More recently, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly and Defence Minister Anita Anand received mandate letters to develop a Canadian Indo-Pacific Strategy, or IPS.

Notwithstanding these steps towards a Canadian IPS, in closed-door discussions with other Indo-Pacific stakeholders, the common refrain is ‘Where is Canada in the Indo-Pacific?’. So, what will be in its IPS? How will it distinguish itself from the US IPS?

PM Justin Trudeau prioritises a progressive foreign policy approach. Chrystia Freeland, the deputy premier, says Canada has a ‘feminist foreign policy’ approach that’s at the centre of its efforts to eradicate poverty and support inclusive development.

So, what should be the basis for a Canadian foreign policy approach to the Indo-Pacific and is there a place for the Trudeau government’s progressive domestic policy agenda?

In trade, standard-setting and maritime security cooperation, some progressive policy advocacy has been a barrier to securing Canadian interests in the region. The Trudeau government’s emphasis on progressive policies was behind the failure of a bilateral free trade agreement with China. It nearly sank the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and strained Canada–India relations.

Progressive foreign policy advocacy has prompted trade and security partners in the region to ask whether Trudeau wants to talk about trade and security or cultural issues.

In areas such as inclusive development, good governance and climate change, there are ways to wed Canada’s domestic values to an IPS.

Canadian Indo-Pacific priorities resonate with the EU, Japan, Australia and the US They understand that China represents a systemic challenge to the current order that prioritises international law, transparency and international institutions that promote good governance through transparent rules-based systems.

The rules-based order is not calcified. It is open to change according to governance dilemmas that emerge. China has been part of this rules-making process in the past. The current order has developed to include climate-change-related targets, trade regulation and shared taxation approaches. In the future, it will need to further evolve to tackle the issue of artificial intelligence, cyber governance, the digital economy and other issues.

Canada has a national interest in ensuring that the rules that emerge to govern these new technologies and emerging problems reflect Canadian values at home.

Any Canadian IPS will need to pragmatically link Canadian progressive domestic aspirations and the realities of the Indo-Pacific’s complex heterogeneity and commitment to ASEAN centrality.

With these limitations in mind, a Canadian IPS will likely be built upon these pillars: inclusive development, trade and economic resilience, climate change, maritime security, energy and critical mineral security, and middle-power diplomacy.

Through unilateral and multilateral partnerships, the inclusive development pillar of a Canadian IPS will focus on development projects through an intersectional approach with the objective of attempting to address inequality, particularly among minority and underrepresented groups in the region.

Japan, Korea and Australia have similar approaches to their development schemes and would be force multipliers if properly coordinated in this endeavour.

Trade and economic resilience remains central to Canada’s economic prosperity. As a member of the CPTPP, Canada has a vested interest in seeing the agreement expand. Its emphasis on protecting intellectual property, limiting the roles of state-owned enterprises and strengthening labour and environmental laws makes the CPTPP a high-standard agreement. This agreement protects research and development and ensures that rules-based market forces remain the arbitrator of economic competition.

Working with CPTPP members, Canada will need to advocate for its expansion with economies like the UK, South Korea and Taiwan. Expanding the number of CPTPP members also serves to protect Canada and other members from economic coercion by diversifying their trade linkages to like-minded trading partners. It also helps Canada to be a rule-maker rather than a rule-taker.

Canada’s IPS should include investment in resilient infrastructure and connectivity at home and in the region to tackle supply-chain issues and non-traditional security challenges such as transnational diseases, climate-change-related extreme weather and geopolitical friction.

The Indo-Pacific is home to the three most populated countries and regions in the world: India, China and Southeast Asia. Climate change will negatively impact the food and water security of each region. It will foment social, economic and political instability that will not stay in the region. Refugees, food and water shortages, and disruptions in supply chains and trade will destabilise the most economically dynamic part of the world making today’s inflation problems look insignificant.

A climate change pillar will see investment in climate-change mitigation, promote environmentally friendly governance and business systems, and technology transfers. The scale of the problem will require regional and global coordination.

Sea lines of communication require stability to continue to transport energy and goods to the region. By working bilaterally and with and in groupings such as the Quad or the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, a maritime security pillar of a Canadian IPS will continue to enhance maritime domain awareness and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea through naval activities, collective diplomacy and 1.5-track dialogues.

Canada’s IPS will include an energy and critical mineral security component. With natural gas, petroleum and critical minerals in abundance, Canada will wed its commitment to climate change with technological development at home to provide reliable, environmentally friendly energy and critical mineral resources to the Indo-Pacific.

While intimately linked to the US, Canada does not want to be either a bystander or an accidental victim of the intensifying US–China strategic competition. It also does not want its strategy to be seen as subservient to a securitised US IPS. As a result, Canada will invest in problem-solving middle-power groupings that may include the US such as the 2020 Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations.

These six Canadian IPS pillars are likely to be the contours for a sustained, inclusive and meaningful role in the Indo-Pacific. They allow for Canada to plug into existing minilateral partnerships such as the Quad or AUKUS to add value on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, Canada can continue its multilateral engagement with international institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, CPTPP and UN. Critically, these pillars allow Canada to complement the efforts of its allies and friends in the region to contribute to a free and open Indo-Pacific.