In The Media

Any new Canada-Asia trade carries with it significant security ramifications

by Rob Huebert

Postmedia News
June 11, 2012

Issues surrounding Canadian exports of its oilsands products beyond traditional American markets have dominated the news.

Difficulties facing Canadian efforts to build new pipelines to the United States and new Asian markets have caused concern amongst those interested in the economic and environmental issues surrounding the oilsands. However, the issue has not yet attracted much attention from a security and foreign-policy perspective.

There has been some discussion on what American reluctance to support the construction of the Keystone Pipeline means to the Canadian-American relationship, but there has not been much discussion of the larger strategic context of the efforts to expand the export of energy to Asia through the Northern Gateway.

Should Canada succeed in building the pipeline to the West Coast, and should Canada succeed in substantially expanding its export sales to counties such as South Korea, Japan and China there will be a significant transformation and challenges to its foreign and defence policy.

Historically, Canadian defence and foreign policy has been shaped by its core trading policies with its largest markets.

First it was the United Kingdom and then it was the United States. As trading patterns shifted from one to the other, so too did the focus of Canadian foreign and defence policy. Thus it is possible to hypothesize that a shift to Asian markets will have significant changes for future Canadian policies.

What will these changes be?

First and most obvious, the deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces has tended to be skewed towards the geographic region where the bulk of the trade takes place. Thus, the Royal Canadian Navy has tended to place a greater emphasis on the Atlantic Ocean. As trade expands with Asia, it stands to reason that this will shift. As trade expands, the navy will find itself increasingly shifting resources to the Pacific. This will require a change in force deployment, but equally important it will also call for a shift in the mentality of a navy that has traditionally been much more focused on the Atlantic.

The most significant change is this new trade will place Canada in the middle of any future disputes between the United States and China. As the Chinese economy grows, it has drastically increased its defence expenditures. It has given special emphasis to its navy. Many observers suggest this increased naval power will be used to strengthen the Chinese position regarding the ongoing disputes that it has with the United States and its Asian neighbours. In the event that hostilities should erupt, the question facing Canada is what it does regarding any ongoing trade?

Does it simply turn off the pump and wait out the conflict?

If it does this, how long would a Canadian economy, grown accustom to the Asian markets, be able to sustain such a disruption?

Furthermore, would it be realistic to posit that the Chinese would be willing to tolerate such an action and thus be willing to resume sales once any such conflict was resolved? Would Canada want to continue to sell oil to China? If Canada maintained this trade during any U.S.-China conflict what would be the effect on existing Canadian-American relations?

If a conflict was to erupt over Taiwan, or any other issue that the United States considers to be a core security issue, it is unlikely that the United States would simply stand aside as Canadian oil continues on the way to China.

This leads to another issue: would the Canadian forces be required to play a role in safeguarding the transport of oil to Asian markets through conflict zones?

The Royal Canadian Navy is not going to be used to break an American blockade against China, if one were ever put in place, as it has neither the capability or the political will to ever think of such actions. But what of any future trade with Japan or South Korea in the event of a U.S.-China conflict, or a renewed war on the Korean peninsula? Oil would be transported in tankers without Canadian flagging. What are the international legal ramifications of protecting Canadian products?

Does the navy have both the capability and training to perform this mission either with the United States or, more problematically, without their assistance?

While these issues seem very far away today, they will become very real once the shipment of Canadian oil and other energy supplies to Asia begins.

The development of the Northern Gateway will be an economic boon to Canada. But this new trade carries with it significant security ramifications that need to be considered today as Canada begins rebuilding both its navy and air force. The strategic context of the Pacific will no longer be a side-show.

Rob Huebert is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute and Associate Director of the University of Calgary`s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.

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