Stephen Saideman is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University
It is easy to understand why Canadian political leaders tend to focus on Europe rather than Asia/Pacific. Because of the various institutions in Europe, especially the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we know how Canada fits in. We know what Canada's role is in Europe, but we have a hard time imagining how Canada can make a difference in the vast waters of the Pacific and among the huge populations of Asia. The answer, to preview, is for Canada to do what it does best.
I recently spent a week in Japan, on a trip organized and paid for by that country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so you can take what I say with a grain of salt. However, what I suggest below can advance Canadian interests, be true to Canadian values and not blow out the budget.
There are two clear realities: That Canada cannot make much of a difference in any military kind of way; and North Korea is someone else's problem. The Canadian Navy is simply too small and currently too stressed to do much. Same goes for the Air Force. North Korea is the most immediate threat with its nuclear-weapons development, missile tests and awful regime, but Canada will have to rely on others to address North Korea. Canada simply lacks the tools to influence North Korea or provide security for the neighbourhood. So, we need to focus on what Canada can do as the region faces the growing pains of China.
First, Canada can make a difference by working with the relatively young democracies of the region to cement their institutions and develop democratic norms. While democracy is not a panacea, we have found that we work better with democracies than authoritarian regimes, and that democracies can create communities of peace and trade. Southeast Asia has a number of relatively new democracies with the potential to go backwards (just look at Hungary and Poland for abject lessons). Canada can be a better mentor than Japan to these countries because the legacy of the Second World War still resonates, making it difficult for Japan to mentor others. Similarly, Canada is perhaps better at this than the United States, since Canadian democratization efforts are seen as less problematic, less tied to the potential U.S.-China conflict, and less an effort by the superpower to dominate.
Second, Canada can help in the Asia/Pacific area by bringing back the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. Japan wants to do more peacekeeping as it aims to be a more positive international citizen and as it seeks a permanent seat at the United Nations. Japan and, indeed, many of the countries of the region could contribute more to peacekeeping efforts but have limited experience. Canada used to train peacekeepers and can do so again. This would not require a great deal of money, but would have a multiplier effect – making Canada more visible as a contributor to regional and international peace and stability.
Third, Canada can do what it has always done: promote and defend the international order via norms that make co-operation easier, and international laws that make conflict more costly. While China does not necessarily have to challenge the existing order – it can develop peacefully within it – we are seeing some significant efforts by China to undermine parts of it. The building of islands to exert territorial control over contested waters is contrary to international law. If we leave it to the Americans to condemn such efforts, then the region may view China's violations as simply a he said/she said of great-power conflict rather than a challenge to the existing rules of the system. Canada could have some impact by being a voice for the rules that prevent conflict.
Of course, there is a conflict of interests and values. There will be the temptation to not call out China for fear that Canadian firms might be denied access to Chinese markets. The reality is that peace is a far better environment for Canadian firms than a disrupted South China Sea. So, doing what is good for Canadian business in the long term might have some costs in the short term. Moreover, Canada is currently making it hard for Canadians to do business in Russia, which is the right thing to do.
We have been focused on Europe and the Mideast too much and have largely ignored the most important part of the world's economy. The future of China is uncertain, as it faces a variety of crises at home and with the neighbours. Canada can facilitate a peaceful path by doing what it does best: supporting democracy, facilitating peacekeeping and supporting the international order that benefits Canadians so much. And none of this is very costly nor very risky. Canada can look west and east at the same time, and should.