Canada’s new Indo-Pacific strategy is clear-eyed on China

The Canadian government released its highly anticipated Indo-Pacific strategy last weekend. It commits the government to spending C$2.3 billion over five years to expand Canada’s military, security, trade and diplomatic ties with Indo-Pacific countries and views the region as globally important.

The strategy examines economic opportunities and strategic challenges and outlines five strategic objectives centring on peace and security, trade, investment, sustainability (including a green future) and Canadian engagement as an active partner to the Indo-Pacific.

A relatively long section is devoted to the threats (and opportunities) coming from China. There’s also a section on India, which is portrayed primarily as a democratic friend that offers significant trade diversification and investment opportunities.

Significantly, the document identifies China as an ‘increasingly disruptive global power’, but also carefully differentiates between ‘the actions of the current Chinese government, with whom we have differences, and the Chinese people’. It directly addresses Beijing’s unpredictability and aggression with explicit descriptions of the geopolitical risks many Indo-Pacific nations now face from China. At the same time, Ottawa proposes to cooperate with Beijing to help address climate change, biodiversity loss, global health and nuclear proliferation.

The document is also explicit in its support of Taiwan and the rights of Uyghurs, Tibetans and other ethnic and religious minorities. It demonstrates that Canada is committed to being a reliable partner to the countries in the region and, notably, states: ‘In areas of profound disagreement, we will challenge China, including when it engages in coercive behaviour—economic or otherwise—ignores human rights obligations or undermines our own national security interests and those of partners in the region.’

The strategy was three years in development, and strongly reflects the changes that Ottawa has experienced and witnessed in Beijing’s behaviour. During that time, Canada went from being friendly with China to recognising that the China of today is not the China of 2015—when Justin Trudeau came to power hoping for a free trade agreement and closer relations. President Xi Jinping’s use of ‘wolf warrior’ tactics against Canada and other nations, along with China’s unpredictable business practices towards foreign companies, have made Beijing increasingly difficult to engage with.

Canada’s relationship with China has been tested in various ways as Beijing has increasingly asserted itself at the global, multilateral and bilateral levels. Canada’s primary values and allegiances, especially with the US and other Five Eyes partners, have been constantly challenged.

At last month’s G20 summit in Bali, Xi was filmed chiding Trudeau for allegedly releasing information to the media about a ‘private’ discussion they’d had. While it was hardly a wolf-warrior exchange, the incident illustrates the soured relations between the two countries, particularly since Canada’s arrest in 2018 of Meng Wanzhou, then chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. China reciprocated by spuriously arresting the ‘two Michaels’ (Spavor and Kovrig) and giving a sentence of execution to Robert Schellenberg, now being appealed. During this period, Canada has unsuccessfully sought rapprochement with China.

By its own admission, the new strategy reflects a more ‘clear-eyed’ view of dealing with China. Canada conducted extensive consultations with Indo-Pacific nations about the strategy’s composition, and Canada’s domestic constituents have expressed a variety of views on the subject. Getting all the stars aligned was undoubtedly challenging.

Overall, the strategy offers a comprehensive, coherent plan for Canada’s Indo-Pacific engagement, with funding attached to core objectives. The previous ‘strategy’ relied on a combination of ministerial press releases and tag lines from prime ministerial or ministerial statements made in parliament. It had no coordinated framework or associated funding, thus lacking substance.

The new strategy articulates Canada’s primary values and interests with clarity, encompassing a ‘whole-of-society approach’ requiring involvement of Canadians from every sector. This is no small ambition, with objectives set to match the region’s future opportunities and challenges. The strategy describes it as a ‘once-in-a-generation global shift that requires a generational Canadian response’.

Importantly, the strategy commits resources—including C$492.9 million in increased defence commitments such as the deployment of an additional frigate to the region. Ottawa will also provide nearly C$227 million to expand the capacity of Canadian intelligence and cybersecurity agencies to work closely with partners in the Indo-Pacific and protect Canadians from attempts by foreign states to influence them covertly or coercively. Other initiatives include a fund to support ocean management and investments to support disaster risk and resilience, for science and technology collaborations and to enhance partnerships with ASEAN.

The strategy states that Canada will work with its allies ‘to push back against any unilateral actions that threaten the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, as well as the East and South China Seas’. Canada has recently joined the Blue Pacific initiative in support of the Pacific islands, and has applied to join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. Canada has also offered to contribute to AUKUS through the partnership’s technology working group, as many of its targeted technologies are significant strengths of Canada.

This is no superficial strategy. Beijing’s bullying and well-documented coercive actions towards its neighbours and towards Canada have caused Indo-Pacific nations to band together to find ways to deal with this more aggressive, authoritarian power. The strategy signals the emergence of a new narrative on Ottawa’s engagement in the region. Canada now has a coherent approach reflecting its sovereign interests and liberal democratic values and aligning with its allies and partners. This new strategy can serve as a model for other countries, including Australia, that don’t yet have a comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy.