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Is there trouble ahead for Canada's Indo-Pacific strategy?

The region has great potential opportunities for Canada, but one year later serious warning signs are starting to appear concerning the longer-term health of the strategy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent appearance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit in San Francisco neatly coincided with the one-year anniversary of the release of Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Published last November to great fanfare, the strategy was Canada’s response to the growing economic and strategic importance of the region, home to 65 per cent of the world’s population and 40 per cent of the world’s combined gross domestic product.

It’s a region that offers great opportunities for Canada, which possesses not only a long Pacific coastline but also a population with many people who have close family ties to the region.

The ambitious strategy identified five objectives: promoting peace and security; expanding trade and investment; connecting and investing in people; building a sustainable, green future; and forging partnerships. Under each of these objectives was a long “to-do” list of specific initiatives and commitments. Supporting it all was $2.3 billion in funding over five years.

Too early for full judgment – but time to take some stock

While passing full judgment on the Indo-Pacific strategy only one year after its launch would be folly, it is not too early to conduct an initial stocktaking. There is some good news, although serious warning signs concerning the longer-term health of the strategy are also beginning to appear.

The federal government should heed these signs and begin to take steps to address some of the broader challenges surrounding the country’s key relationships in the region as well as its security presence.

Let’s begin with the good news.

Progress has been steady if modest. It is never easy getting “money out the door” early in support of large-scale government strategies and it has been no different in this case.

The focus has been on conducting cabinet-level visits to the region; launching trade missions; establishing strategic dialogues with partners such as the U.S., South Korea, Australia and ASEAN; and appointing diplomats to new high-level positions, such as the special envoy for the Indo-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific trade representative.

The first full-scale Team Canada trade mission to Japan was a notable success, featuring more than 160 Canadian organizations from diverse sectors including clean technologies, information and communication technologies, and agriculture and creative industries.

Beyond visits, announcements and appointments, there have also been a few other tangible outcomes.

For example, the Royal Canadian Navy has deployed an additional warship and a support vessel to the region.

Global Affairs has opened a visa operations centre in Manila. Fisheries and Oceans has participated in its first mission against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the region.

The government has established and begun staffing the new Indo-Pacific agriculture and agri-food office in Manila. Negotiations on a foreign investment promotion and protection agreement with Taiwan have been completed.

Now the bad news

These early steps are encouraging and could be laying the foundation for greater progress. Time will tell. But they should not obscure much larger challenges, some of the government’s own making, which are already beginning to emerge.

First is the precarious state of Canada’s relationship with India following the prime minister’s statement about Delhi’s possible complicity in the killing of a Canadian Sikh activist in June.

India’s increasing strategic and economic clout makes it a virtual lynchpin of the strategy. Canada wants to work with Delhi in areas of common interest, including security and trade. But current tensions – notwithstanding recent signs of de-escalation – make such prospects difficult and put the entire strategy at risk if not addressed soon.

Second is the relationship with Beijing. While the strategy identifies China as a “globally disruptive power,” it also argues that country’s size and influence make co-operation with the West essential in addressing the world’s key problems, such as climate change and global health.

China’s economy is also hugely attractive to Canadian business. The strategy effectively calls for Canada to walk a tightrope between competition and co-operation with Beijing.

Events over the last year, including allegations of election interference by China, suggest the relationship is only worsening and that this tightrope is becoming increasingly dangerous to walk. Such an approach may not be sustainable.

Third, Canada remains missing from regional bodies such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), the AUKUS defence pact and the quadrilateral security dialogue (the Quad).

The Business Council of Canada’s frustration at the APEC summit over Canada’s exclusion from IPEF was palpable. Canada can continue to deflect criticism concerning its absence from these bodies, but such denials won’t hide the fact that the country is being sidelined on important regional security and economic discussions and is suffering serious damage to its reputation.

Finally, the chief of the defence staff recently indicated that the Canadian Armed Forces would be challenged to sustain its increased presence in the region. The frigates are reaching the end of their lifespan and balancing their deployment globally will become increasingly difficult.

With the long-promised defence policy update still missing in action and with significant increases to the defence budget unlikely, Canadians are left wondering whether military options that could play a pivotal role in the region – including frigates, submarines and maritime patrol aircraft – will be upgraded or replaced anytime soon.

Two approaches for India and China

So what should Ottawa do in response to these challenges?

It should begin by repairing its relationship with India as quickly as possible. While Delhi must be held accountable for any complicity in the murder of a Canadian citizen, the government must also find a way to work with India moving forward.

Not only is this relationship key to the Indo-Pacific strategy, but India is also critical for the West’s broader strategy of confronting an increasingly aggressive China in the region.

Close co-operation on this issue with the United States – which disclosed in a recent indictment Delhi’s potential involvement in assassination plots on American soil, as well as supporting Canada’s statement about the killing in B.C. – will be essential. Ottawa and Washington must jointly press for accountability while focusing on the overarching objective of maintaining India as a partner, not an adversary.

Balancing ambition with pragmatism in Canada's Indo-Pacific strategy

In the Indo-Pacific, Canada has core interests but weak clout 

Canada’s difficult relationship with China will not be a problem solved overnight. All Western countries are grappling with China’s bellicose behaviour. However, Australia and others are making greater efforts to find common ground.

As Ottawa’s relationship with Beijing continues on a downward spiral, the government needs to explain how it will walk that thin tightrope described in the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Canada must make a more concerted effort to join key regional bodies. The government should make joining IPEF, AUKUS and the Quad explicit policy goals, then devote the necessary resources to achieving these goals as soon as possible.

Lastly, the government should unveil its defence update and explicitly state how the Canadian Forces will support the Indo-Pacific strategy.

In a perfect world, the update would lay out a clear path for the procurement of new frigates, submarines and maritime patrol aircraft to help support security in the region. If that is not in the cards, then the government needs to explain how the security objectives of the Indo-Pacific strategy will be implemented down the road.

In the meantime, other crises continue to proliferate around the world, including wars in Ukraine, the Middle East and Africa. Canada has global interests but limited resources. It will therefore require a delicate balancing act to ensure the Indo-Pacific strategy does not wither on the vine.

About the Authors

Vincent Rigby is the Slater Family Professor of Practice at Max Bell School of Public Policy. He served in the Canadian public service for 30 years, focusing on security and intelligence, foreign policy, defence, and development issues. His last position was as National Security and Intelligence Advisor to the Prime Minister from 2020 to 2021. 

Aftab Ahmed is an MPP alumni and public policy columnist for Canadian and Bangladeshi media platforms, focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. He is currently an urban fellow researcher with the City of Toronto.

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