Does Canada have security interests in the Asia-Pacific?
“For some of you, hearing a representative from Canada speak at an Asian security summit may come as a bit of a surprise.” This statement was made during a speech by Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who for the first time attended the Shangri-la Dialogue, one of Asia’s most prominent regional security forums. During his visit, MacKay also met with regional allies on his trip to discuss closer cooperation on security issues, and Canada is reportedly exploring the possibility of establishing military ‘hubs’ in the region. Another prominent Canadian Minister, John Baird, is now set to attend another important regional conference on security, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), this week. Overall, we appear to be showing a greater interest in the security of the Asia Pacific, possibly even considering something akin to the US’s ‘pivot.’ Does Canada have security interests in the region, and does security have a role to play in Canada’s overall engagement with the Asia Pacific?
Key Things You Need to Know:
- 66% of Canadians believe that China’s growing military power is a threat to the region.
- Canada has contributed to peace and security in the Asia Pacific through military exercises, peacekeeping, and disaster relief.
- Security concerns in Asia include traditional threats such as a territorial disputes and ethnic conflicts, and non-traditional issues such as energy security, transnational crime and human trafficking.
While the shift in the global centre of economic gravity to the Asia Pacific is widely recognized in Canada, the security implications of that transition are less frequently discussed.. China is the principal architect of the new security landscape. Dependent on the untrammelled movement of exports and energy by sea, China, like India, has expanded her navy dramatically. Thus, we have an unprecedented situation on our hands; three great maritime polities – India, China, and Japan – arrayed across Asia at a time when the Indian and Pacific Oceans are fraught with disputes and a naval arms race is, arguably, underway.
There is another great navy, the United States Navy, and Washington is committed to allocating American naval assets to the Asia Pacific region asymmetrically in view of uncertainties about China’s rise. Of course, Sino-American tensions are only one element in the regional security calculus. The region is haunted by history and tensions exist between the great powers as well as on the Korean peninsula where the ambitions of the reclusive, nuclear-armed North Korea, constitute a major threat to global security.
It is important to note that these traditional security concerns are matched by an equally impressive array of non-traditional security concerns: piracy, drug trafficking, the illegal movement of people and weapons, illegal fishing, and smuggling, all of which have maritime dimensions.
What does all this mean for Canada? Does Canada have genuine security interests in the Asia Pacific region? The answer is emphatically, “yes.” With the end of the combat phase in Afghanistan, the government has acknowledged the importance of enhancing security relations with key regional nations. There is, for example, a longstanding relationship between the Canadian and South Korean militaries which derives from Canada’s involvement in the Korean War and contemporary concerns about security on the Korean peninsula. Canada also has very close defence ties with Australia and New Zealand and continues to build its relations with nations like Japan and Singapore. Furthermore, Canada is cognizant of the implications of America’s renewed commitment to the region, particularly in an age of austerity when a premium is placed on cooperative efforts.
The Asia Pacific region is a dynamic, even volatile, region. The Royal Canadian Navy – ably supported by the army and air force – is one of the critical vehicles by which Canada, through naval diplomacy and appropriate contributions to regional security, can telegraph its national and naval resolve in this quintessentially maritime region.
Canada and Australia have always struck me as remarkably similar cousins. Culturally and politically, it is easy to see the family resemblance. One glaring difference, however, is our attitude to security and our ability to define our security interests.
The “arc of instability”, stretching from Malaysia, through Indonesia, and into Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, is so clear and present, you can almost see it from Canberra. For Australians, understanding where their security interests lie is obvious. For Canadians, our interests are further away, more disbursed, and rarely in our thoughts.
But those interests are real and they require our attention. Canada is a trading nation, with an economy that increasingly depends on exporting energy to Asia. We are vulnerable to the disruption of shipping lanes, like the pirate-plagued Strait of Malacca, and to destabilizing regional conflict, like in the South China Sea. Major disruptions to Asian markets, from natural disasters, criminality, or war, directly threaten our domestic economy. And, in the age of “just-in-time” production strategies, the impact is felt almost immediately.
For too long, Canada has relied on others to secure our economic interests abroad. This has been possible due to the close convergence between American and Canadian trading patterns. But our economies are diverging, our interests do not overlap as they once did, and the American security umbrella has been worn thin and brittle.
It is time to recognize, like Australia has, our security interests in Asia. They are important. We cannot count on others to look after them. And we need to engage in Asia to ensure our future prosperity is protected.
Canada’s increased presence within security dialogues in the Asia-Pacific can be interpreted as part of a growing Canadian interest in the stability and continued prosperity for the region, of which Canada itself is a part. The rate of economic growth in ASEAN particularly in countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand which have much to offer in terms of manufacturing and shipping, presents opportunities for prosperous relationships. By attending regional forums on security, the Canadian Government can be better informed about the direction that is being set in terms of dealing with prominent security issues, which in turn can be used to determine how viable an increased economic relationship is.
Academics, economists, and legislators mostly agree with the merits of economic development supported by secure and stable environments, but recent security ‘endeavours’ on the international stage have been perceived to surpass such moderated goals. In practice, creating Canadian Military hubs modeled on the US’s ‘pivot’ risks raising issues of legitimacy, given the precedents set by events over the last decade and with the propriety of using military force called into question.
Indeed, just as important as determining whether or not Canada has security ‘interests’ in the region is determining the potential role Canada’s military would actually play in the Asia-Pacific. Although Canada had incorporated the human security paradigm into its foreign policy which in turn guided some Canadian Armed Forces missions during the 1990s, the current government has officially shifted away from this framework in recent years. This has repercussions for the way that the Canadian Military decides to engage and contribute to societies where it is established abroad. An example of how this translates into practice could be in the event of an environmental disaster, in an instance akin to the floods experienced in Thailand in 2011. Will the Canadian Military place an emphasis on humanitarian relief as part of its mandate, and therefore choose to assist the host country and its civilians, or would it stick to a more ‘traditional’ military role deeming assistance in such situations outside of its repertoire?
At a philosophical level, welcomed presence and assistance from Canada is not inappropriate, if it is conducted in a way that compliments the values and ideals of all actors involved and affected. Where Canadian policy and actions from a security standpoint are not clearly divorced from economic end, such involvement becomes less palatable. If this is a foreseeable problem, then the Canadian government can actively participate and remain engaged in the Asia Pacific, but it must tread carefully when directly participating in matters involving security. After all, military presence can have coercive affects, and has the potential to be used as an instrument to enforce goals. Colonialism is not so far behind that one ought to forget this.
In this age of globalization and economic interconnectedness, it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to neatly separate economic and security issues. The Canadian state’s security interests in the Asia Pacific are therefore deeply intertwined with its economic objectives. In the context of the continued rise of national economies throughout East and Southeast Asia it would be difficult to argue that Canada does not have economic interests in the Asia Pacific.
Armed conflicts, terrorist attacks, and other instances of unexpected violence in Asia could seriously disrupt financial markets, trade routes, and the flow of goods and services to and from Canada with unforeseeable consequences for Canadian businesses. A military conflict between China and Taiwan, which is still a distinct possibility, would be extremely detrimental to not only Canadian economic interests, but also to Canada’s diplomatic relationships with the belligerents.
To allow for increased trade between Canada and Asia Pacific economies, the Canadian government should consider how it can contribute to peace throughout the region. Peter MacKay’s recent attendance at the Shangri-La Dialogue and his expected presence at the ASEAN Regional Forum is a notable beginning, but the Canadian government should look to become even more involved and to gain a measure of influence in Asia Pacific security forums and international organizations as a way to facilitate more effective security cooperation on common threats. Moreover, improving the Canadian government’s connections with Asia Pacific countries on security matters may ultimately foster cooperation in other areas, such as on economic or human rights issues, which may lead to an overall improvement of Canada’s relations with Asia.
Finally, how one defines the term ‘security’ may determine how one answers the question of whether Canada has security interests in the Asia Pacific. For example, issues of freedom and human rights are intimately linked to notions of security and economics. If an important aspect of Canada’s stated foreign policy is to further the spread of purportedly fundamental freedoms, then questions of security for whom and from what become critical. The Canadian government must not only co-ordinate to improve the security of states, but of people as well. In cases where these interests diverge, the security of individuals and collectives will need to be pursued without jeopardizing diplomatic relations. The Canadian state and Canadian people need to decide how they will interpret and engage with security issues in the Asia Pacific, but non-involvement is not a viable option.