Image credit: Twitter - @justintrudeau
by Stephen Nagy
September 14, 2021
The Indo-Pacific region stretches from North America to the west coast of India. It has become the core economic engine of global growth and the centre of geopolitical competition and potential destabilization because of climate change and non-traditional security challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Party affiliation aside, Canadian politicians need to be thinking about Canada’s sustained engagement in the Indo-Pacific region. The region’s burgeoning middle classes and rapidly growing economies are a boon to our natural resources and agricultural sectors. Our educational institutions, tourism, hotels, car rentals, language schools and restaurants also benefit from the Indo-Pacific’s dynamic growth.
This growth will continue in the decades to come because the region is home to economies that are committed to trade and development, as evidenced by the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), with the latter advocating for expansion.
Canada would be smart to position itself to maximize the benefits it receives from the Indo-Pacific’s economic growth trajectory. This will require sustained engagement and a Canadian Indo-Pacific brand.
Lack of a Distinct Indo-Pacific Brand
The problem for Canada in the Indo-Pacific is it does not have a brand. Many capitals throughout the region see Canada as inconsistent in its engagement in the region and where it is engaged, it has little visibility.
What’s more, regional leaders find Canada’s progressive values to be fine for Canadian society but they think those values should have no place in Canada’s diplomacy in the region.
Perhaps most problematic for Canada is that it is often seen as a junior partner to the U.S. with little autonomy as to how, what, where and why it engages in the region.
A sober assessment of the region’s compatibility with Canadian domestic values needs to be the basis for developing a sustainable and distinct Indo-Pacific brand that contributes to securing Canadian interests and providing wanted public goods to the region.
Canada also needs to ensure that its Indo-Pacific brand is distinct and independent from the U.S., otherwise resident Indo-Pacific stakeholders will not see Canada as an honest, independent stakeholder in the region.
This will become increasingly critical as U.S.-China competition becomes more severe. There is a growing sense that countries will need to choose between the U.S. and China, a choice that no country or region wants to make.
Principles of Canadian Indo-Pacific Engagement
Ottawa’s May 3, 2021 statement, Shared Canada-Japan Priorities Contributing to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Region, paints the contours of the principles of Canadian Indo-Pacific engagement. Consistent with Canada’s post-Second World War middle-power identity and approach to diplomacy while upgrading aspects of that approach to mitigating 21st century challenges, the focus is on:
- Rule of law;
- Peacekeeping operations;
- Peace building;
- Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief;
- Health security and responding to COVID-19;
- Energy security;
- Free trade promotion and trade agreement implementation; and
- Environment and climate change.
Principle-based, Canadian Indo-Pacific Initiatives
Concrete and sustainable initiatives in the Indo-Pacific should echo the Canada-Japan joint statement but also create a distinct Canadian Indo-Pacific brand. Examples could include:
- Appointing an Indo-Pacific minister/high commissioner tasked with formulating, co-ordinating and executing Canada’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy and engagement;
- Funding an Indo-Pacific-based but Canadian think tank or university of the Indo-Pacific to develop and demonstrate Canada’s presence and contributions to the region;
- Supporting a joint Indo-Pacific Canadian chamber of commerce to link, inform and support Canadian businesses throughout the region;
- Enhancing middle-power co-ordination through forming an Indo-Pacific middle-power commission to discuss North Korea denuclearization, COVID-19 vaccine distribution, climate change, AI governance, etc.
- Promoting energy security co-ordination through co-operation and joint technological development;
- Supporting inclusive development through co-ordination, co-operation and joint initiatives;
- Enhancing peacekeeping operations, peace building and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the region through ad hoc participation in institutions and mini-lateral co-operation.
While not an exhaustive list of initiatives to create a meaningful and sustainable Indo-Pacific Canadian brand and presence, Indo-Pacific stakeholders would welcome each one, as they provide public goods to issues that resonate in the region.
Canada will be better positioned to realize sustainable and meaningful Indo-Pacific engagement by working with like-minded states such as Japan, the U.S., Australia and others. Becoming an engaged Indo-Pacific stakeholder that promotes a free and open rules-based order, Canada is also critical to strengthening its position vis-à-vis China, a relationship that will continue to challenge Canada but also be of enormous opportunity.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). He is currently the director of policy studies for the Yokosuka Council of Asia-Pacific Studies (YCAPS) and a governor for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (CCCJ). He was a distinguished fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation from 2017-2020.