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Pedestrians walk past a screen showing footage of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) ships during an evening news program in Beijing on Aug. 2, 2022.TINGSHU WANG/Reuters

The federal government’s forthcoming Indo-Pacific strategy must explicitly recognize and respond to the security threat China poses to the region, experts say, otherwise Canada risks being regarded as irrelevant in a part of the world that is expected to be a centre of economic growth for decades.

The Indo-Pacific region, which stretches from North America to India’s west coast, is home to 60 per cent of the world’s population, and it accounts for 60 per cent of global gross domestic product. About 60 per cent of world maritime trade passes through its oceans, a third of that through the South China Sea, where Beijing has made sweeping territorial claims.

“China should be front and centre,” Vincent Rigby, who retired as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser in 2021, said of the Indo-Pacific strategy. “If it doesn’t deal with China, it’s just going to undermine our credibility.”

The government has been quietly formulating its Indo-Pacific strategy since 2020. Two sources with knowledge of the strategy said the first draft, which was compiled by a team from Global Affairs, made no mention of China. One of the sources added that an outside advisory panel of experts, assembled by Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly in June to provide input on the strategy, is involved in a heated debate over whether China should be addressed in the panel’s recommendations. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources, because they were not authorized to discuss the government’s deliberations.

Many of Canada’s major allies, including other Group of Seven countries, have already formulated their own Indo-Pacific strategies.

The idea of the “Indo-Pacific” is a strategic shift, first championed by Japan and embraced by Australia and the United States. The purpose of the concept is to build common cause between India and neighbours that have burgeoning middle-class populations and a shared interest in addressing China’s growing influence in the region, and who also fear Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea and other ocean trade routes.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific policy, unveiled in February, clearly says China is using all of its economic, military, technological and diplomatic might to become the dominant player in the region.

“From the economic coercion of Australia to the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India to the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying neighbors in the East and South China Seas, our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behavior,” the American strategy says.

Dominic Barton tapped to advise Canada on Indo-Pacific strategy

Although the sources said the first draft of Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy did not directly mention China, they said it did obliquely reference China at times.

The draft stressed the importance of widening the circle of possible trading partners in the region and boosting security and international assistance, one of the sources said. This would have the effect of lessening Canada’s dependence on China and its growing economic and military power.

The draft also proposed Ottawa establish a bigger diplomatic footprint in the Indo-Pacific and contribute to infrastructure investments, which would be consistent with Western efforts to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Under that initiative, Beijing is pouring US$1-trillion into building railways, ports and pipelines from Asia to Africa, as part of what critics regard as a state-directed effort to bolster Chinese political influence and extend the country’s military reach.

The draft also called for increased spending on international development assistance and the fight against climate change, according to the sources. Also mentioned was the idea of boosting the presence of Canadian naval vessels in the region, and Canada taking a more active role in cybersecurity.

The sources said Ms. Joly wants to play down Canada’s shift away from China and is determined to repair relations with Beijing in the aftermath of the Meng Wanzhou affair.

After the 2018 arrest of Ms. Meng, a senior executive at the Chinese tech company Huawei, China jailed Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. The episode, which was resolved after the U.S. dropped an extradition request for Ms. Meng and China released Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig, saw Ottawa-Beijing relations become more tense than they had been since after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.

Ms. Joly’s Indo-Pacific advisory panel consists of 14 members. Among them are several pro-China business advocates, including former Liberal cabinet minister Pierre Pettigrew, who is now chair of the board of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, which promotes closer trade ties with China.

The panel also includes Dominic Barton, Canada’s former ambassador to Beijing. He resigned from that role in December to chair mining giant Rio Tinto, which does most of its business in China.

One of the sources described the panel’s deliberations over how, in its eventual report to Ms. Joly, it should address China’s growing power and influence. The source said the panel is debating whether those issues should be included at all, let alone identified as a core problem for the Indo-Pacific region.

The source said Mr. Barton has argued that relations with Beijing can be managed.

Janice Gross Stein, one of the co-chairs of the advisory panel, declined to answer questions about the Indo-Pacific strategy, saying the entire committee is currently bound by strict confidentiality rules and none of its members are free to discuss their individual perspectives or the proceedings of the body.

Failure by Canada to address Beijing’s threat to the region publicly will be noticed by allies, especially in Washington, experts say.

Canada has 27,000 kilometres of coastline along the Pacific Ocean.

Peter Jennings, a senior fellow and former executive director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra think tank, said Canada is already not regarded as a serious player in the region. He pointed to the fact that Canada was not invited to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an alliance between India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. that was created in response to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive push to build regional networks and project its military power.

Nor was Ottawa asked to join the AUKUS defence pact, which is made up of the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. The federal government only found out about the alliance after it was announced.

Opinion: Canada inexcusably absent from another Indo-Pacific initiative

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has dismissed AUKUS, saying it’s really little more than an arrangement to sell U.S. nuclear submarine technology to Australia. But AUKUS members are also jointly developing technology to launch and intercept hypersonic missiles, which travel five times the speed of sound and can change course in midflight. And the allies are also working together on electronic warfare, which is the use of the electromagnetic spectrum to disrupt enemy operations.

Mr. Jennings said Canada is “pretty marginal” in Australia and runs the risk of becoming more marginal in Washington if it doesn’t lay out a clear view on China.

“If the strategy just comes up with pap, then … a lot of capitals will be unimpressed with that and start saying, ‘Well, can we trust the Canadians working on military technology projects?’ ” Mr. Jennings said. “Or, ‘Is Canada still fully signed up to intelligence exchanges that we can be confident about?’ ”

Mr. Rigby, the former national security adviser, worries Ottawa is being ignored by players in the Indo-Pacific. Canada was also not invited to join a U.S.-led partnership of 14 countries intended to boost economic ties to the Asia-Pacific region and counter China’s rapid advances in the area. Nor was Canada asked to be part of an economic and political initiative by Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. to counter China’s creeping takeover of small South Pacific islands.

“The China threat has to be acknowledged. And, working in close co-operation with our allies, we need to respond to that threat,” Mr. Rigby said. “We are having security interests threatened by China in the Indo-Pacific, and at home, so we need to do something.”

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at Japan’s International Christian University, said he thinks countries in the Indo-Pacific region would want Canada to distinguish itself from the U.S. in its approach.

“I think the last thing they want is something that seems like it’s just a carbon copy of a U.S. strategy, because they would like to see Canada as an independent actor that can bring value to the region,” Prof. Nagy said.

“It has to be built on an engagement process that recognizes the needs of the region, and how they how they reflect Canadian interests,” including mitigating climate change, he added.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a Canada-based senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, said Canada is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the Indo-Pacific.

“We’re beyond laggard now. We’re not even thought of, and that’s not a good place to be,” he said.

Randolph Mank, a former Canadian envoy to Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan, said Canada seems to have a policy of “strategic procrastination” on major geopolitical issues. Even if there is no mention of Beijing’s aggressive behaviour in Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy, he said, the West, including NATO, has already drawn a line in the sand.

He noted NATO’s recent pivot toward identifying China as a strategic challenge, the G7′s move to spend US$600-billion to challenge the Belt and Road Initiative, and bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress that Taiwan should be declared a major ally of the U.S. outside of NATO.

“So these three big things are defining our Indo-Pacific strategy much more than any panel that Mélanie Joly can assemble of Canadian thinkers on the subject,” he said.

What Mr. Mank would like to see – but can’t imagine the Trudeau government would embrace – is a commitment to building more liquefied natural gas facilities on the West Coast to deliver natural gas to Canadian allies in the Pacific region. LNG could also be sold to China to reduce its dependence on coal-fired energy.

“We account for 1.5 to 1.7 per cent of global emissions, and China is 30 per cent. So it would seem a natural way to contribute to the global effort to reduce emissions,” he said.

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