Canada lagging on Indo-Pacific strategies
Ottawa risks losing out on decisions to help shape region, expert says
VANCOUVER—Canada has fallen behind other nations in developing an Indo-Pacific strategy to help counter China’s influence, diversify trade and bolster democratic values in the region, experts say.
Stephen Nagy, a research fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said while Ottawa is working on an Indo-Pacific vision, progress has been slow and Canada risks being left out of decisions shaping the region.
“I don’t think they’ve been as in tune with the dynamics as they could have been,” Nagy said. “We seem to be late to the table. We haven’t clearly identified our national interests in the region.”
The Indo-Pacific strategy refers to an overall strategy for countries to advance economic, security and political interests in the region, which stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Western Indian Ocean.
It has been talked about more internationally as tensions with China and neighbouring countries have increased in recent years and for economic reasons.
Many nations have begun developing Indo-Pacific strategies to safeguard their own interests and diversify their trade and influence in the region.
Nagy said India, particularly, is a critical partner in balancing out the world’s relations with China. Other countries, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, have been supportive.
But Canada has lagged behind, he said.
Nearly two years ago Ottawa started a unit under Global Affairs Canada aimed at developing an Indo-Pacific strategy, but little about its development is known.
The Star asked Global Affairs Canada for an update on the team’s progress.
Department spokesperson Lama Khodr said Canada is working on a “new integrated approach” to the Indo-Pacific region to “deepen” relations with the countries in that region.
“The department is committed to collaborative work in regional forums in the Indo-Pacific on economic and public health recovery that is inclusive and sustainable; while also implementing the Feminist International Assistance Policy in a post-COVID context,” wrote Khodr in an email.
She said part of the approach will be to work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its member states on trade and investment, the environment, security and other issues.
But the reply did not name any specific measures Ottawa is taking nor whether a comprehensive strategy will be made public. It only said that the new approach continues to be developed.
Trade between Canada and India has grown in recent years to reach more than $10 billion between the two nations in 2019, according to figures on the Indian consulate in Toronto’s website. About $3.4 billion of the trade is between Ontario and India.
Meanwhile GAC’s figures show trade between Canada and Japan, another top IndoPacific player, reached $26 billion in 2020.
Nagy wagers the reason Ottawa’s vision for the Indo-Pacific hasn’t been detailed is because the government is still working out a new China policy. A solid China strategy should be within the framework of an Indo-Pacific strategy, he said.
“You build strong partners and relations within the region and you approach China from a position of strength,” he said. “That’s really important.”
Nagy said Ottawa is also waiting to see more details of U.S. President Joe Biden’s vision for his country’s approach to the region.
In November 2019, the Trump administration released the Free and Open Indo-Pacific document, focused on economics, governance and security.
Last month, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, told foreign ministers of the ASEAN the United States is set to release further details of its IndoPacific strategy under Biden within the coming months.
The European Union announced its plans in September, including plans to seek more trade ties with Taiwan.
The U.S. strategy likely won’t be much different from the one laid out under the Trump administration, said Josh Kurlantzick, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in the U.S.
“I suspect that the national security strategy is going to focus intensively on a whole wide range of ways in which the U.S. and partner countries hope to counter China,” Kurlantzick said, adding it will probably be a more aligned strategy than the Trump administration’s.
Countries likely to be involved include Singapore, Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines and Thailand, he said.
Jonathan Berkshire Miller, the director of Indo-Pacific program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, said some opponents have tried to paint Indo-Pacific strategies as a tactic developed by the Trump administration. But Japan has actually been leading the way.
“My counter has always been that sort of a ridiculous argument,” Berkshire Miller said, pointing out many countries have been active on the issue. “The Indo-Pacific is more than the U.S. saying ‘were angry at China.’ ”
Canada’s policy-makers need to realize how many countries are looking to co-operate on the Indo-Pacific due to issues with China and act accordingly, he said.
Berkshire Miller said Ottawa needs to disregard narratives suggesting Canada merely had a bad episode with China over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou at the request of U.S. authorities and the retaliatory arrests of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
“You’re already starting to see these narratives now,” he said. “The reality is the structural problems with the relationship to China, which are not unique to Canada, have been there before. We were basically sleeping on this for a long time.”
Canada-China relations cannot go “back to normal,” he said, making an Indo-Pacific strategy more important. It’s a better strategy to couch China in a wider Indo-Pacific agreement than give it so much attention and power as a single nation, he said.