Roland Paris is director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s speech in Washington earlier this month signalled an important shift in Canada’s foreign policy. In the future, she said, Canada would limit its economic links with authoritarian regimes and expand those with democracies.
Protecting Canada from the likes of China and Russia is essential. So is strengthening ties with our democratic friends. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has laid bare its imperial ambitions, and China has become more aggressive as it has grown richer. Ms. Freeland got that right.
But the rest of the world is not easily divided into competing camps, nor is it in Canada’s interest to do so. In her speech, Ms. Freeland mentioned a third category of countries – those “in-between” democracy and authoritarianism – which, she said, are welcome to join the “alliance of democracies” if they embrace “our values.”
Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne delivered a similar message in Washington a week later: “What we want is certainly a decoupling, certainly from China and I would say other regimes in the world which don’t share the same values.”
Where would this leave, say, Vietnam? It is a one-party state, ruled by the Communist Party, but also Canada’s largest trading partner in Southeast Asia, a member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, and a bulwark against Chinese efforts to dominate the region. Vietnam should not be relegated to the residual category of “in-between” countries. It is a strategic partner.
The same applies to Indonesia – a democracy, but one marred by reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions; endemic corruption in its national and local legislatures, judiciary and police; and discrimination against women and racial, religious, and sexual minorities. Should Canada seek closer ties with this country?
As it happens, the answer arrived one day after Ms. Freeland’s speech, when International Trade Minister Mary Ng met with Indonesian officials. According to the official readout of their meeting, Ms. Ng “underlined the importance of an ambitious Canada-Indonesia comprehensive economic partnership agreement and reaffirmed that the successful conclusion of negotiations is a priority for Canada.” Her comments suggested that Canada is cultivating Indonesia as a partner – and rightly so.
What, then, is our strategy toward “in-between” countries? This question applies not just to Vietnam and Indonesia, but to scores of countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Indeed, most of the world’s countries would fall into this category. A moment’s thought about their number and diversity reveals the absurdity of the question – and the category.
The United States, for its part, has not described the world in such terms. Its latest National Security Strategy, published earlier this month, emphasizes strategic competition with China and the threat posed by Russia, but asserts that the U.S. “will avoid the temptation to see the world solely through the prism of strategic competition and will continue to engage countries on their own terms.”
Nor does the U.S. strategy advocate “decoupling” from countries that do not embrace democratic values. On the contrary, it says: “We will partner with any nation that shares our basic belief that the rules-based order must remain the foundation for global peace and prosperity,” including “countries that do not embrace democratic institutions.”
Unfortunately, Canada rarely produces such strategic documents. It has not published an international policy statement since 2005, although the long-promised Indo-Pacific strategy may soon appear. Canadians have been left to parse politicians’ speeches and wonder how seriously to take them. Ms. Freeland’s speech left many observers scratching their heads: Is this Canada’s new foreign policy?
Perhaps this was not her intention. The fact that both she and Mr. Champagne delivered their remarks in Washington hints at more specific aims. Support for free trade in the United States has collapsed, driven by concerns about the impact of globalization on U.S. workers and about the security of American supply chains. Canada cannot afford to be cut off from the U.S. market, the destination for three-quarters of our exports. Tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum during the Trump administration, and the Biden administration’s consideration of tax measures that would have seriously damaged Canada’s auto sector, may be harbingers of worse to come.
By embracing the geopolitical worldview now dominant in Washington and emphasizing Canada’s importance to U.S. economic security, the two ministers were effectively telling their American audience that Canada is part of their economic homeland and vital to their security – so if the U.S. is considering any new trade restrictions, don’t impose them on Canada.
Securing Canada’s economic interests with the United States is vital. So is resisting the threat posed by Russia and China. We can surely do so, however, without unnecessarily alienating partners in the rest of the world, whose help we may also need.