United States, Canada and Asia-Pacific Security
Published: November 18, 2011
Prime Minister Harper’s recent announcement to join negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership breathes new life into Canada’s hitherto low key engagement in Asia Pacific multilateralism. But where is Canada’s seat at the Asia Pacific’s newest regional security and political grouping, the East Asian Summit?
The statement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper from the summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Honolulu that Canada will be joining negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) breathes new life into Canada’s hitherto low key engagement in Asia Pacific multilateralism. The TPP is a relatively new multilateral trade forum in the Pacific strongly backed by the US. Yet, when the key leaders of Asia Pacific join hands in the Indonesian island of Bali on 19 November at Asia Pacific’s newest regional grouping, the East Asian Summit (EAS), Canada will be the only G-20 member from the Asia Pacific (Mexico aside) not to have a seat at the table. Moreover, it is unlikely that Prime Minister Harper absence in Bali will be seriously noted.
Canada’s predicament contrasts sharply with the growing US involvement in Asia Pacific regional institutions. In joining the EAS in 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the US would like to turn the EAS into “foundational security and political institution for the region”. The US also participates in the ASEAN Regional Forum, the region’s main security dialogue forum since 1994 and the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), set up in 2010 to discuss national strategic postures and develop modalities for addressing common threats. Canada has been excluded from both the EAS and the ADMM Plus.
Ottawa clearly lags behind other powers of Asia in regional multilateral engagement. Apart from the US, the other middle powers of Asia Pacific, such as Australia, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and India have also increased their engagement. None sees its membership in G-20 or its bilateral ties with the US as a substitute for enhanced regional engagement.
The Obama administration’s robust engagement in Asia Pacific regional bodies reflects calculations that multilateralism can serve as a pressure point on China and discourage its aggressive behaviour. Indeed, since 2010, the US has used regional platforms to delegitimize Chinese provocations in the South China Sea.
While the Canadian policy context is not the same as America’s, it too has a strong interest in encouraging peaceful Chinese behavior. As Michael Green, a US scholar, puts it, regional institutions like the ARF help China’s neighbours to “demand standards of behaviour from China in ways that would simply not be as effective on a bilateral basis”. Participation in EAS and the ADMM makes Canada better placed to assess China’s rise and shape collective expectations and standards of behavior to constrain any Chinese action that might threaten regional peace and stability.
A robust multilateral engagement offers a number of benefits to Canada. Asia Pacific’s fledgling multilateral institutions have been able to engage both China and the US simultaneously. They have created multiple channels of communication across the region, bringing together adversaries such as India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, China and Vietnam, and Thailand and Cambodia. They prevent the emergence of a G-2 world, which would be hardly in Canada’s interest, and may instead serve as a building block for the G-20, which Canada strongly espouses.
Some Canadians may ask: why bother with multilateral institutions when America, with its traditional bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, among others, and its new-found interest in regional institutions, can take care of its security interests in Asia? But this approach, which amounts to free-riding, puts too much faith in US resources and attention span, and the synergy between US and Canadian security interests in Asia.
Canada should thus supplement its newly stated interest in Trans Pacific Partnership with a concerted effort to secure membership in the East Asia Summit.
This piece was first published in the Toronto Star on November 17, 2011.
Amitav Acharya is Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service, American University. He is also Senior Fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.