Vincent Rigby is a visiting professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and a former national security and intelligence adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Jennifer Welsh is the director of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies at McGill University.
In case you missed it, Canada finally released its long-awaited Indo-Pacific Strategy on Sunday. The fact that many of us were fixated on our country’s World Cup match against Croatia should not detract from the importance of this new policy framework for a variety of actors, both inside and outside government.
The strategy is informed by three realities. The first is that as a trading nation, Canada’s future prosperity will depend in large part on its ability to achieve reliable access to the world’s new centre of economic gravity. The second is the significant evolution in Canadian public opinion, and the views of our country’s political class, about the threats posed to our values and interests by a more powerful and assertive China. And the third is the degree to which our country’s population is now intertwined with that of the Indo-Pacific, with one in five Canadians having family ties to the region.
The government’s main messages on the strategy mirror these old and new facts. They underscore that Canada needs to “show up” in the Indo-Pacific with both “hardware” – a beefed up military presence – and “software” – an expanded diplomatic presence, an envoy and changes to our visa policy to enable a freer flow of people and ideas.
Canada’s overriding goal is to be an active, engaged and reliable partner in the region. That last element – reliability – is a signal that we intend to invest for the long term. The strategy’s five objectives – peace and security, trade and investment, people-to-people ties, sustainable development and partnerships – are not just words, but will also be supported by $2.3-billion in new funding over five years.
But the strategy also insists that our approach to the Indo-Pacific includes a “realistic and clear-eyed assessment” of China, a country that is explicitly identified as a “disruptive global power” whose “interests and values … increasingly depart from ours.”
Such a bold statement is long overdue, as our allies have held this position for some time. And one of the strategy’s missing elements is how we will work with those allies. Although Canada matters globally, it cannot make a political or military difference in this part of the world on its own. What will an extra frigate or participation in regional military exercises accomplish without closer co-operation with the U.S., Australia, Britain and others? In that vein, will we finally join the AUKUS partnership, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue?
The strategy’s approach to China is ambiguous elsewhere, too. For example, while it is welcome news that Canada will step up the fight against foreign interference, espionage, intellectual property theft and investments by Chinese state-owned enterprises, we lack any indication of how we will do it.
Similarly, the government’s refrain that we will challenge China where we should but co-operate where we must only takes us so far. Where and how do we engage with China when opposition to its assertiveness makes that co-operation more difficult? We have seen on climate-change negotiations with the U.S. that if China is not happy, it will pack its bags and go home.
There is nevertheless much to admire in this strategy, including a “whole-of-government” commitment to leveraging our expertise and experience in clean energy, green infrastructure, science, technology and innovation, ocean management, food security, climate financing and disaster resilience and recovery.
The strategy starts to lose coherence, however, when it tells us that Canada will focus on supporting democracy, the rule of law, economic growth and resilience, peace and security, sustainable development, human rights and much more. How do these goals stack up against one another? Does supporting democracy in South Korea not look different from Cambodia? Where is the strategic approach to addressing democratic backsliding? And how easy will it be to pursue these lofty goals with crucial countries such as India, which continues to play footsie with Russia, and ASEAN, which has a long-standing commitment to non-interference in the affairs of states such as Myanmar?
After some false starts, Canada thankfully has a strategy for the Indo-Pacific. But in many respects, that was the easy part. Now comes implementation, and as is so often the case, the devil will be in the details.
Moreover, though we now have a strategic framework for one global region, the same cannot be said for other parts of the world. How will the Indo-Pacific strategy be balanced against foreign policy priorities in Europe, Africa and Latin America? We still lack a comprehensive foreign-policy statement, a notable shortcoming for a G7 country facing a challenging world.