Canada is being urged to join an informal four-country alliance that is taking on greater significance in the Indo-Pacific amid rising concerns over China’s expanding military and political influence in the region.
For the first time earlier this year, the Royal Canadian Air Force participated in exercise Sea Dragon, an anti-submarine warfare drill in Guam alongside the United States, India, Japan and Australia, which make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
Sub-hunting is “an absolute core strategic challenge of the Indo-Pacific,” said Rory Medcalfe, an Asia security expert at Australian National University and author of Indo-Pacific Empire.
“Being able to find Chinese submarines – it could be a make or break in future deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.”
Known as the Quad, the four countries hold military exercises, semi-regular summits and forge co-operation on matters from protecting supply chains to cyberdefence in an arrangement that is seen as a counterweight to China’s growing power.
Canada has not been asked to formally join the Quad but experts say it’s only a matter of time before the question of closer relations comes up as U.S. President Joe Biden seeks to build global alliances to contain Beijing.
Retired U.S. rear admiral Robert Girrier, now president of Honolulu-based Pacific Forum, a foreign-policy research institute, said Canada would be a logical member of the Quad as the group expands to include other countries in the Indo-Pacific.
“What about Canada? It would be absolutely appropriate and actually a very good thing,” he said. “It is a very obvious yes.”
Retired Canadian vice-admiral Mark Norman agreed that Canada should seek membership in the Quad but only if Ottawa is willing to make a significant contribution to Indo-Pacific defence.
“So, yes, I am an advocate of working with those countries but we need to do it seriously,” he said. “These are serious countries with serious issues and they are not interested in adding a flag to the photo op. They are looking for meaningful contribution.”
Both admirals expressed concern about how Beijing is rapidly modernizing its armed forces and increasing its military presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Not only does it pose a threat to international trade routes, but China has sent its fishing fleets into the waters of other countries.
“It’s my way or the highway. They continue to take their fishing fleets and put them wherever they want them in other countries. These are large fishing fleets that often act like paramilitary units,” Mr. Girrier said.
Last June, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near islands in the South China Sea. The month before, a Malaysian oil-exploration vessel was involved in a month-long standoff with a Chinese survey ship, off Borneo, prompting the U.S. and Australia to send warships to the area.
In March, Jody Thomas, the deputy minister of National Defence, told a security conference in Ottawa that Canada is sending a signal to China when it deploys warships to the South China Sea, a vital artery for global commerce that Beijing is trying to claim as its own by building artificial islands and military installations. As recently as October, Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg sailed through the sea’s Taiwan Strait.
Canada’s Department of Global Affairs was noncommittal when asked whether Canada had sought to join the Quad.
“Canada works with all four Quad members to address shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific region,” the department said in an e-mail. “In recent years, as a Pacific nation and given the increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific to Canadian security and prosperity, Canada has enhanced its diplomatic and defence presence in the region.”
Although the U.S. may be interested in having Canada join the Quad, India and Australia consider it too soon.
“In terms of participation in the Quad itself, I think it is a little bit early perhaps, in my view, for Canada to be a member of the Quad,” Retired Indian rear admiral Sudarshan Shrikhande said.
Mr. Shrikhande said the Canadian military could make a better contribution by beefing up its activities in the Arctic, where China is taking an active interest along with Russia.
Chinese and Russian activities in the Arctic are of growing concern. China has already build one icebreaker and another is under construction, while the Russians have modern military bases in their Arctic region and are building a new fleet of 13 polar icebreakers.
“I would say Canada’s contribution to global concerns about China would be well-placed by Canadian activism in the Arctic … because I feel China’s intentions in the Arctic need careful watching and monitoring,” Mr. Shrikhande added.
Mr. Norman countered that although Canada needs to build up its presence in the Arctic, it shouldn’t preclude taking an active role in working with Quad allies in the Indo-Pacific.
“China is demonstrating clear ambitions as it relates to what I would characterize as our backyard,” he said. “We need to make significant investments. We need to stop making token gestures as it relates to continental security. It is everything from icebreakers to new sensors to updating NORAD in whatever forms that it takes.”
Prof. Medcalfe, the Asia security expert, cautions against thinking of the Quad as an “Asian NATO.” It’s not a formal military alliance with a defence pact such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, where Article Five means an attack on one member of NATO is considered an attack on all of its members.
The Quad arrangement, launched in 2004, lost momentum after 2007 for a number of reasons, including concern about alienating China.
Australia, which has undergone a national debate about China and whether the Quad might alienate Beijing, is committed to the arrangement, Prof. Medcalfe says.
He said the Quad is about sending signals to Beijing that the “harder that China presses against any individual Quad member, or against other countries in the region, the more the Quad will begin to look alliance-like.”
Yet experts still question whether Canada can seize the opportunity to work more closely with the Quad and other partners in the region.
Jonathan Berkshire Miller, director of the Indo-Pacific program at the Macdonald Laurier Institute, noted that the Canadian government has yet to release a strategy outlining its intentions for the Indo-Pacific region. That, he said, would represent a high-level commitment to security in the region, including, potentially, working with the Quad on a regular basis.
“Without a strategy, the strong tactical pieces – like Sea Dragon and other efforts – appear to be isolated and underwhelming contributions,” Mr. Miller added.
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