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How Can Canada Best Defend its Security Interests in the Indo-Pacific?

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Image credit: Corporal Braden Trudeau Trinity – Formation Imaging Services/ CAF Photo Gallery

POLICY PERSPECTIVE

by Eric Lerhe
July 2021

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How Can Canada Best Defend its Security Interests in the Indo-Pacific?

A longstanding principle of Canadian foreign policy has been that as a trade-dependent nation we need the safety and stability of a rules-based international order. In Europe, Russia challenges that order and Canada sends its ships, aircraft and troops in support of NATO’s effort to deter Russia. Those forces are there on an almost permanent basis today. This deterrence posture is stated up front in our defence policy document, Strong, Secure, EngagedFor the Indo-Pacific, however, our defence policy goals are less focused. There, we wish to contribute to security by softer measures such as our “continued presence in the region” or “by being a reliable partner.” Rather than seeking to deter China, our defence policy states we will make a particular effort to establish stronger relations with it. Then-Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland made clear that this focus on Russia as the sole major power security threat was a part of our foreign policy.  In a robust 2017 address, she challenged Russia for its “illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory”, stating this was not “something we can accept or ignore.”  China was only mentioned as part of an Asia rapidly emerging on the world scene.

The government’s focus on Europe over the Indo-Pacific was also reflected in the 2021 federal budget, in which $850 million was dedicated to maintaining our air and sea forces in Europe and paying NATO costs. Critics observed there was nothing in the budget for our Indo-Pacific security concerns.  Further, while all the Canadian Forces contribute to NATO, Gen. Jonathan Vance, who was then the chief of defence staff, handed off responsibility for the Indo-Pacific to the Esquimalt-based Maritime Forces Pacific (MARPAC). Regrettably, the government has not chosen to provide the MARPAC with an equitable share of frigates, supply ships and aircraft, and the majority of those assets remain Atlantic-based as Canada continues to prioritize NATO goals over our Pacific ones.

The range of security challenges China has created or exacerbated in the Indo-Pacific makes it hard to understand why we have chosen to deter only Russia. China skirmished with India in the Ladakh area of the Himalayas in 2020 in one of the bloodiest of a long series of their confrontations in this area. China has also challenged Japan over the ownership of the Senkakus at the southern end of Japan’s Kyushu island chain. Recent Chinese interest in these uninhabited islands is suspected to be related to the potential offshore oil and gas reserves or to their need for a base in this critical part of the East China Sea. North Korea is under UN sanctions for its continued testing of nuclear weapons, uranium enrichment and missile tests, and Canada assists in enforcing the sanctions by sending frigates and maritime patrol aircraft. At the same time, China is assisting North Korea in evading those sanctions and transhipped 2.8 million metric tonnes of North Korean coal to Chinese ports in 2019.

In addition, China had pledged in 1984 that Hong Kong citizens would enjoy freedom of assembly and speech, their unique system of local government and an independent judiciary for 50 years after the return of Hong Kong to China. Beginning in 2019, however, a series of new Chinese laws allowed them to transfer Hong Kong suspects to Chinese mainland courts, dramatically limit freedom of assembly, arrest protesters and significantly reduce the number of seats on the Hong Kong Council filled by direct elections. China has dramatically failed to abide by the provisions of the turnover agreement.  Significantly, China has also applied new citizenship laws to Hong Kong with the result that the estimated 300,000 Canadian citizens there may have their dual citizenship removed or their right to leave curtailed.  China’s ambassador to Canada was also recently accused of implicitly threatening their safety. Not surprisingly, at least one Canadian-Chinese organization has called for an evacuation plan.

In the South China Sea, China had used the dubious provisions of its nine-dash line to claim 90 per cent of the sea up to 900 miles off its coast. China harassed its neighbours’ fishing and oil exploration efforts in their entirely legal 200-mile economic exclusive zones, and escorted the illegal entry of its own fishers and oil rigs into those waters. These incursions were assisted by China’s coast guard, now the largest in the world, and a grey-zone fleet of fishing vessels operating under government control. Their activities led the Philippines to take China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. The court’s 2016 finding was a total win for the Philippines and, indirectly, all China’s South China Sea neighbours as it completely invalidated China’s nine-dash line. China has stated it will ignore the ruling and it continues to harass its neighbours in their legal economic exclusive zones. However, the ruling emboldened those states and they are now challenging China legally, diplomatically and militarily. All are re-arming and the United States, Japan and India have offered them assistance. Canada sends one or two frigates annually to assist in the South China Sea via presence patrols that are intended to challenge China’s continued claims to ownership of most of that sea. Tensions remain high, and the Council on Foreign Relations included the South China Sea in its “top conflicts to watch” list in 2020.

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Another Council report recently concluded that Taiwan “was becoming the most dangerous flashpoint in the world.”  This stems from China’s often-stated intent to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland, and it has specifically not ruled out the use of force to achieve this.  The government of Taiwan opposes unification, and is backed up by polls showing less than 13 per cent of the population supports this outcome.  The U.S. is also bound by law to provide Taiwan with sufficient arms to defend itself, but it will not unambiguously commit its own military to Taiwan’s defence.  However, its recently released war plans for the Indo-Pacific show it is preparing to do so if needed.

Japan is more circumspect, but it is widely accepted that it would join the U.S. in the defence of Taiwan and has recently passed legislation to allow for that.  In partial response, China has created an anti-access, area denial system with between 980 and 2,100 ballistic missiles to target U.S. and Japanese forces. While some argue the risks are still too high for China to attempt an invasion of Taiwan in the near term, others are more sanguine. The U.S. military commander in charge of the U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, for example, predicted China would attempt to take Taiwan within the next six years. 

The central thrust of U.S. strategy in the Pacific is deterrence against that aggression and it needs allies, with the Biden administration focusing on the Quad grouping of itself, Japan, India and Australia. The U.S. is taking steps to institutionalize the Quad along with efforts to downplay the perception that it is an anti-China Asian NATO. France, the United Kingdom and Germany have increased their presence in the Indo-Pacific and are frequently mentioned as potential Quad participants, as is Canada.

Canada has expressed no interest in joining. Last year, a Global Affairs Canada briefing note suggested that Canada shift away from viewing China as an economic opportunity towards recognizing China’s long-term challenges to Canadian interests, but it was rejected on its way to the Trudeau cabinet. Arguably, the time for this is fast approaching with China’s thwarting of UN sanctions off North Korea, its rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration decisions in the South China Sea and its failure to abide by the Hong Kong hand-over agreement, all providing direct challenges to the rules-based international order. Further, Canada’s allies are taking steps to deter China’s further aggression.

If Canada were to respond, it has a range of options. We could, for example, increase the frequency and intensity of our current activities, rebalance our forces towards the Pacific, invest in new military capabilities overall or formally join one or more of the coalition groups now forming.  With the United States as our principal ally and increasingly seen as the key to getting Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor released, Canada doing less in the Indo-Pacific seems an unlikely option.

While our ship presence in the Indo-Pacific has increased significantly since 2018, there are still gaps in our current ship and aircraft deployments in support of North Korean sanctions.  Committing a permanent ship or aircraft to this task, as we do for some NATO missions, is an obvious place to start. Moreover, doing so could provide more on-station time to conduct our presence patrols in the South China Sea and in the Strait of Taiwan. This would match the tempo we maintain in NATO, and using its costs as a baseline that would suggest a sustained effort in the Indo-Pacific could be achieved for an additional $100 million yearly. This is less than two per cent of the Department of National Defence’s (DND) annual budget. We should also seek to repeat the deployment of one of our submarines to Japan and start sending our CF-18s to the Indo-Pacific, particularly to Quad exercises. Two Canadian authors have argued this kind of enhanced presence is one of the best ways for Canada to support Taiwan. Even with that, the chance of these Canadian enhancements provoking China is very low. In the past, none of these activities has elicited any public Chinese response save one minor criticism. Sustaining this increased tempo over the long term requires a modest rebalancing of defence units from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This would involve the transfer of one frigate and our single leased supply ship to the Pacific. Comox-based CP-140 aircraft numbers should also be increased as well as Pat Bay CH-148 ASW helicopters.  Again, these incremental but long overdue changes are unlikely to generate a Chinese reaction, yet they are an important part of a larger process that demonstrates Canada is responding to increased instability in the region.

Maintaining an effective deterrence posture also requires that Canada maintain up-to-date equipment and the ability to resupply them. Here, the outlook is largely positive with our current defence policy already committing to new supply ships, the new Canadian surface combatants and a new fighter aircraft. However, we also need to replace our submarines, and these are uniquely capable of operating in China’s anti-access area denial zone today. For the same reason, the most capable stealth aircraft and ballistic missile defence-capable ships should be considered in the face of a numerous and very sophisticated Chinese missile threat. Finally, the delivery of the two new joint support ships, while long needed, will not provide for a single continuous supply ship on each coast.  Therefore, Canada should also continue the already successful lease of commercial supply ships to augment them. Again, a negative Chinese reaction is unlikely, given that most of these projects have been already announced without issue.

What is more likely to provoke China is any hasty move by Canada to join an anti-China coalition.  Faced with that kind of challenge, China prefers isolated sanctions against a single country just as it seized two random Canadians and applied restrictions on Canadian canola, peas, pork and soybeans over our detention of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou. Australia alone was targeted over calls for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 virus. Canada has also seen that in taking relatively strong action against China, such as in sanctioning four Chinese officials in March 2021 over the treatment of the Uighurs, it escaped damage in part because Canada had joined with the U.S., the U.K. and the EU in doing so.

Any effort to deter aggression in the Indo-Pacific will only be effective if done as a coalition. Here, Canada has several options. The first and the most readily available would involve orienting the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group towards an anti-China coalition. Tentative steps in this direction have begun, but after the Five Eyes recently criticized China’s Hong Kong policies, China responded with outrage and threats against its smaller members, including Canada. Going further would probably result in Chinese trade restrictions or outright sanctions. New Zealand has already signalled it will not participate in this reorienting of the Five Eyes community, and the grouping does not include Japan – a critical pro-Western partner. It is probably best to leave the Five Eyes to their traditional and highly effective intelligence-sharing role.

The Quad is the next potential grouping for Canada. The Biden administration is re-emphasizing and institutionalizing it, and has informally invited Canada to join. We have expressed no interest and that probably reflects the fact that its members all maintain sizable military forces in the region and we do not. If we were to suddenly take up the invitation to join, we would attract unnecessary Chinese attention without actually contributing much. If, on the other hand, Britain, France and Germany were to make moves to join the Quad, we should consider joining them. These states all have similar capabilities to our own in the Indo-Pacific, and a group action will make a Chinese counter-reaction more difficult while also being more effective in deterring China.  

This type of Quad enlargement may not happen soon. In the interim, Canada should expand its ties with Japan. Japan’s location and efficient military make it a key player in countering North Korea and in deterring Chinese adventures in the East China Sea and Taiwan. Canada also relies on Japan’s bases for our ships and aircraft when conducting North Korean sanctions enforcement.  Japan’s help will also be critical if we are ever forced to evacuate Canadians from Hong Kong, or in any other large-scale coalition action. While some have called for extending a security guarantee to Japan, this is probably a step too far for Canada, Japan and certainly China.  Rather, Canada and Japan should expand their current cross-servicing agreement that allows each to supply the other’s military. We should also conclude an intelligence-sharing agreement, increase Canadian participation in Japan’s advanced exercises and conduct more frequent deployments to its bases. Canada should also expand officer exchanges with Japan and offer training opportunities. China probably would not perceive these smaller steps as a threat, unlike it would with a formal alliance, which would likely provoke China to implement trade sanctions or worse against Canada. However, it remains a useful option for Canada should conditions deteriorate and a heightened deterrence posture become necessary.  Here, the initial smaller steps recommended would ensure that an alliance, when formed, was effective.

Canada is long overdue in recognizing that China is at least as great a security concern as Russia.  If Canada wants stability in the Indo-Pacific, we will have to join with our allies in their deterrence effort against Chinese aggression. To support this, Canada must also commence its overdue rebalancing of its military toward the Pacific and continue its already scheduled military reinvestment efforts.  Canada’s contribution will not upset the strategic balance in the region, but if it is co-ordinated with our allies, the deterrence effect will be significant, especially in the South China Sea and off Taiwan. Doing so in a coalition is also likely to be more effective while being less prone to attracting sanctions.  Even when Chinese sanctions are inevitable, a coalition effort will disperse their effect.

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About the Author

Dr. Eric Lerhe served in the Royal Canadian Navy for 36 years. After two ship commands, he then served as Director Maritime Force Development and Director NATO Policy in NDHQ. He earned his MA at Dalhousie in 1996 and was promoted to Commodore and appointed Commander Canadian Fleet Pacific in January 2001. In that role he was a Coalition Task Group Commander for the Southern Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz sector during the War on Terror in 2002. Commodore Lerhe retired from the CAF in September 2003 and commenced his doctoral studies at Dalhousie. His PhD was awarded in 2012 and he continues his research into Indo-Pacific, NATO and maritime security issues as an independent scholar.

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Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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