Phillip Lipscy is a professor of political science and director of the Centre for the Study of Global Japan at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.
With Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arriving in Ottawa for his first bilateral visit to Canada on Thursday, it’s time for Canada and Japan to rethink their relationship.
Both Mr. Kishida and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are currently overseeing historic shifts to their countries’ foreign policies. Japan recently unveiled a pivotal national security strategy that decisively breaks the long-standing norm of keeping defence expenditures below 1 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, Canada has announced its much-awaited Indo-Pacific Strategy, which promises a “generational Canadian response” to the rising influence of the region.
The common interests and shared values between Canada and Japan are self-evident. Both countries are long-standing democracies, advanced economies and G7 members. They are leading foreign-aid donors and key supporters of an open, rules-based order. The two countries are increasingly tied together by the expanding flows of trade, investment and people that connect countries along the Pacific Rim.
The countries also share common concerns. Political instability in the United States has raised serious questions about the reliability of a key ally. Vladimir Putin’s brutal war against Ukraine demonstrates the dangers posed by aggressive autocrats. Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Yasutoshi Nishimura, recently argued that like-minded democracies must counter authoritarian countries by rebuilding a “new world order.” Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy also singles out China as an increasingly disruptive global power that disregards international rules and norms.
As G7 partners, Canada and Japan actively co-ordinate on a variety of global challenges such as climate change and international financial governance. The two countries were pivotal in resuscitating the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after the Trump administration withdrew from the original agreement. Warships and aircraft of the Royal Canadian Navy are actively participating in sanctions enforcement against North Korea in collaboration with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.
Nonetheless, the Canada-Japan relationship still has considerable room to grow. Traditionally, the primary focus of each government’s diplomatic attention has been elsewhere. The United States has loomed large as Japan’s only treaty ally and Canada’s only contiguous neighbour, but the bilateral relationship has also been overshadowed by Europe and other Indo-Pacific countries, along with multilateral initiatives.
Japan is the ideal partner for Canada as it boosts its regional engagement. The third largest economy in the world is enjoying a period of newfound dynamism after a long era of stagnation. The country is also actively boosting its defence capabilities in response to many of the same threats identified in Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. Crucially, Japan has emerged in recent years as a pro-active leader and hub for strategic thinking about the region. The concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific emerged from Tokyo and became a guiding principle across major capitals, including Washington.
To strengthen ties, it will be necessary to pursue both immediate and long-term opportunities for co-operation. The Australia-Japan relationship offers many useful lessons – the two countries have deepened co-operation across a variety of areas, and the relationship is now often described as a semi-alliance. Australia is also a member of the Quad, a partnership among Japan, India and the United States, which shares important priorities with Canada.
Government officials often contrast the increasingly robust political co-operation between Ottawa and Tokyo and the relative lack of engagement by the business community. The most obvious opportunity is in the energy sector, where Japan’s lack of domestic energy sources has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. It will be important to pursue co-operation consistent with the goal of long-term net-zero emissions. The governments could also do more to promote Canadian innovation hubs such as Toronto to attract Japanese investors and innovators.
The most important generational priority is the development of stronger people-to-people ties between the two countries. Unlike the U.S.-Japan relationship, which benefits from a wealth of expertise on both sides across all sectors, the bench is relatively thin for the Canada-Japan relationship. Greater investments are needed in programs to support student exchange and scholarly research, policy dialogues and conferences, and delegations to connect business leaders on both sides.
Japan should also do its part. While prominent Japanese politicians and officials travel frequently to Washington and New York, relatively few visit Ottawa or Toronto. Adding such a stop would strengthen critical people-to-people ties. Consistently sending high-level delegations to gatherings such as the Halifax International Security Forum will also increase Japan’s visibility in Canada.
A generational foreign policy reorientation is not an easy task. However, it is worth the effort to expand this relationship, so Canada and Japan can contribute to each other’s successes.