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Chuck Chiang: Canadian presence in Asia requires more than economic interest

by Chuck Chiang (feat. Marius Grinius)

Vancouver Sun
July 12, 2015

While the Canadian government has been busy developing economic ties with the Asia-Pacific Rim region, Ottawa should be doing much more to contribute to the region’s geopolitical security, a report from a Canadian foreign-policy think-tank says.

In the paper Canada and Asia: Prosperity and Security, Marius Grinius, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, details how Canada played a prominent role in Asian security matters in the 1990s, only to pull back dramatically since the mid-2000s.

Grinius said that in the mid-1990s (during what he calls Canada’s “Golden Age of Asia”), extensive visits made by top-level Canadian officials to Asian countries for economic promotion were combined with an participation by Canadian security experts in multilateral security discussions, including on the South China Sea. By 2000, Canadian participation was waning, Grinius said.

He noted that some experts have described a “cyclical political re-discovery of Asia” by Ottawa every decade. The revival in interest in free-trade agreements, as well as the aggressive push to encourage Canadian businesses to target markets like India and Southeast Asia, fits with the notion that Ottawa has “once again rediscovered Asia, at least in terms of commercial prospects.

But the increased economic stakes in Asia require an equivalent foreign policy — anchored by a clear defence and security strategy and objective — to ensure the protection of Canadian interests, Grinius said. That, he said, is currently missing.

“What is less clear … is Canada’s response to the security and stability challenges that Asia continues to face,” Grinius argued. “Canada has, for now, chosen to emphasize a mercantile foreign policy. Such an approach, however, must not ignore the need for a strong defence policy anchored within a vigorous foreign policy that is able to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

There are signs that Ottawa is starting to move in that direction. Thursday, during an address at an Asia Pacific Foundation roundtable in Vancouver, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson said Ottawa intends on playing a significant role in boosting regional security and working on areas like the India-Pakistan tensions and the island disputes in the South China Sea.

“Regional security in Asia is a big priority for us,” Nicholson said. “This means, in addition to aggressively promoting our commercial interests, we are investing our time and resources toward specific projects to help the region and the world to be more secure.”

On the India-Pakistan and South China Sea issues, Nicholson outlined specific positions his government is taking. He identified India and Southeast Asia as key partners in those disputes for “shaping a peace” to promote stability and prosperity.

“We share the concerns of all who believe that we have rules for a reason,” Nicholson said about the South China Sea situation, where China and several southeast Asian countries have disputes over the sovereignty of the Spratly and Paracel Islands, as well as the surrounding waters. “Without rules, chaos ensues. With them, we can expect the prosperity that unleashes the kind of growth that would shape the peace for generations to come.”

Nicholson also expressed strong concerns about terrorist groups that continue to operate within Pakistan, hinting at potentially working more closely with India as New Delhi and Ottawa move closer in the diplomatic sphere. The improved bilateral relations were highlighted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Canada, including Vancouver, in April.

“I agree the sponsorship of terrorism is in no way a legitimate extension of foreign policy,” Nicholson said. “It subverts the very international order we seek to shape together. This is why, when we look to Pakistan, we are concerned about the activities of terrorist organizations along the Afghan border. We are particularly concerned what could happen if ISIS expands its reach into the subcontinent.”

While Nicholson’s announcement outlined areas of focus (cybersecurity and stemming human trafficking among them), he did not fully address of how Ottawa plans to enhance its security influence in Asia. Grinius said Canada has contributed more substantially to Asia’s stability in the past, through participation in multilateral discussions and negotiations.

Grinius noted that Ottawa had expressed interest in joining the East Asia Summit, a wide-ranging multilateral discussion involving the region’s biggest players, including the United States, as far back as 2012. Southeast Asian officials have also been conducting defence ministers meetings since 2006.

Canada, however, has not been invited to either.

“It appears that ASEAN is still not quite convinced of Canada’s commitment to Southeast Asia, or to Asia,” Grinius said. “As a result, ASEAN continues politely to stall on Canadian membership (in the East Asia Summit and defence ministers meetings), perhaps until such time as Canada can show a serious, long-term track record of participation in ASEAN strategic and security priorities.”

A key area where ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) leaders may be looking for more Canadian participation may be what experts call Track II diplomacy, or informal, non-governmental and unofficial discussions.

Grinius said that, during the 1990s, Canadian experts on the international law of the sea regularly engaged Asian authorities. He also noted that Canadian academics have “considerable expertise” in other areas, such as maritime security, counter-radicalization, disarm­ament and non-proliferation.

Grinius said cuts to federal funding meant Canadian experts could no longer be as involved, curtailing an effective tool in building Canadian influence and prestige in Asia and silencing Canada’s voice in Asia when it may be the most needed.

“Government of Canada funding for this type of work … seems to have dried up,” the report read, noting such expert engagement must rely on more limited private funding. ”Just when China has taken an aggressive stance in the South China Sea, Canada is no longer present.”

Canada has also had a lowered military presence in Asia-Pacific Rim and Grinius said a more steady stream of exchanges may been needed to improve Canada’s trust factor among southeast Asian leaders.

“A more enduring Canada-Asia golden age can once again flourish,” Grinius’ report said. “But, it means that Canada must demonstrate a stronger and more consistent commitment to Asia that goes well beyond the economic-commercial dimension. Given the current geopolitical challenges within the Asian region, it must include a robust defence and security dimension.”

While Ottawa is beefing up its diplomatic missions in Southeast East, Nicholson affirmed that economic interests will remain the key focus.

“We recognize, or course, that we live in uncertain times,” he said. “I guess we always do. And we recognize the global economy is fragile. This requires leadership and a sound economic plan that aggressively affirms Canada’s indelible place as a partner in Asia and as a Pacific nation.”

Grinius’ full research paper can be seen at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute website at www.cgai.ca/canada_and_ [email protected]


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