In The Media

The Asia-​Pacific and the RCN

by Eric Lerhe

CDA Institute Blog: The Forum
June 25, 2015

CDA Institute guest contributor Dr. Eric Lerhe, a retired Commodore from the RCN, comments on Canada’s role in the Asia-​Pacific. This post is based on his recently released Canadian Global Affairs Institute Policy Paper.

Over the last thirty years, Canada’s involvement in the Asia-​Pacific is probably more accurately described as erratic, rather than as absent. For example, we briefly engaged with the states of the region during the Canadian-​initiated Northwest Pacific Security Dialogue (19901993) and then with our funding of the South China Sea Dialogues in the mid-​1990s, but our attention soon drifted elsewhere.

Our military and naval engagements in the area were similarly short-​term, erratic, and often reactive. Something more resembling an engagement strategy emerged in the 1990s as the Canadian Navy began a series of biennial “Western Pacific Deployments,” or “Westploys,” in which four-​ship naval formations were sent to the area, alternating between the North Pacific and South Pacific. Yet these engagement efforts then came to a sudden halt in 2001 as the Navy and all defence funding were reprioritized to the War on Terror and Afghanistan.

In 2012, there was a marked increase in the Canadian government’s interest in the Asia-​Pacific which experts have termed, somewhat critically one suspects, a “mini-​pivot” or “economic pivot.” This had little to do with the American rebalancing or the deteriorating security situation generally, and James Manicom of the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) sensed the Canadian project was, instead, entirely trade-​based. However, government efforts to increase our Pacific trade have been hampered by Canada’s weak presence in the region.

The Canadian mini-​pivot that would hopefully overcome these impressions included efforts from within the Department of National Defence’s (DND) Global Engagement Policy. The department correctly focused on gaining entry to the East Asian Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, the fora with the tightest focus on regional security. After announcing those goals, DND then listed its recent accomplishments in the area, noting each VIP visit made, new agreement signed, and exercise attended. The agreements are welcome, particularly the 2013 signing of the Canada-​US Asia-​Pacific Defence Policy Cooperation Framework. Most of the rest of our efforts were temporary and involved exchanges between officials. There was only a single port visit by a sole warship to the area in 2014. The only sustained efforts were our continuing participation in Exercise RIMPAC, but these occur only every two years.

One can discern several reasons for Canada to be far more directly involved in Asia-​Pacific security. First, the US Secretary of Defense asked for our support during the Halifax International Security Forum in 2013, stating his department “looks forward to Canada’s increased engagement in the region.” Canada certainly seemed to be indicating we were on board with Minister of National Defence Nicholson adding that “both Canada and the United States share with our Asian partners an interest in promoting stability” and then signing the Canada-​US Asia-​Pacific Defence Policy Coordination Framework that seeks to achieve this.

Next, Canada’s government is fully aware that trade must be reoriented away from the slow-​growth established economies and moved towards the rapidly-​growing Asian economies. However, as has been repeatedly made clear by ASEAN and others, Canada can only gain greater access to much of the region’s trade if it commits to a sustained security effort in the region. This was further reinforced by the US view that the Trans-​Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which will control over forty per cent of the world’s economic capacity, is now seen in the US as the “economic complement” to their Pacific rebalance.

Moreover, many of the same ASEAN states are moving rapidly towards an enhanced security régime. Joining now ensures we will have a hand in designing the security architecture. We can join it now or we can join it later, but given that ASEAN also controls much of the economic arrangements in the area, delay will mean Canada accesses the economies of this high-​growth area that much later.

Canada can, of course, stand off from the deteriorating security situation in the region. The legal rights of the Philippines and Vietnam can also be ignored. This would involve a rather dramatic walking away from the assurances we recently gave the US Secretary of Defense and the agreement on Asia-​Pacific cooperation we just signed with his department. While the issue linkage would not be direct, such a Canadian move would also seem particularly unwise when trade agreements are approaching conclusion and the US remains our largest trading partner by some considerable margin.

Canada must also recognize that our current approach of intermittent, brief single-​ship visits, VIP exchanges, and occasional exercises is going to achieve none of those goals. A recent CIGI-​Australian Strategic Policy Institute study tartly concluded its recommendations for a Canadian government wanting entry by stating “Not surprisingly, being engaged requires Canada to actually be in the region.” It is also not surprising that the vast majority of authors calling for greater Canadian engagement identified Canadian naval ships as the vehicle. In part this recognizes the majority of the region’s current conflicts involve maritime boundary disputes.

In the particular case of China, ships are seen as uniquely capable of quickly shifting tasks in theatre between diplomacy, deterrence, and containment. This would allow Canadian ships to collaborate with China’s recent positive multilateral naval efforts either independently or in cooperation with the US “soft” engagement effort. Those same Canadian ships could also instantly switch to reinforcing the US “hard” balancing effort should the security situation continue its current decline. Their mobility also allows them to respond quickly to the area’s rapidly changing events by either surging forward or withdrawing without local upset as they operate without a base footprint.

While our current frigate and destroyer count is low, it is improving as more vessels come out of their midlife modernization. However, the current lack of a supply ship forecloses the earlier option of returning to our successful task group Westploy model any time soon. Yet we also had an unbroken string of successful deployments by our frigates with US carrier battle groups throughout the 1990s and during the War on Terror as a result of our ability to meet the United States Navy’s extremely high interoperability standards. This would suggest we should soon offer up a frigate to the 7th Fleet carrier battle group operating out of Japan on a twelve-​month cycle. We would be wise to ensure a significant portion of its time is spent operating with the Japanese Navy.

Given the heightened concern over the threat to the sea lines of communication posed by China’s and North Korea’s large submarine fleets, the frigate we send could well be joined by temporary or full-​time deployments of the CP-​140 Aurora and our Victoria Class submarines. Our traditional anti-​submarine warfare expertise is still valued, but that value will be significantly increased when the modernized frigates are joined by the new CH-​148 Cyclone shipborne helicopter and the upgraded CP-​140.

Finally, we can only return to full Canadian task group deployments when we have an AOR, and even here that capability is forfeit every four years as it goes into refit. Either the building of the two Berlin class supply ships should be expanded to three, with two being on the West Coast, or we should plan on retaining one of the recently called-​for interim tankers. Given the rapidly declining security situation in the Western Pacific, efforts to deliver that interim tanker should be accelerated. That supply ship would allow a return to biannual task group deployments to the region, although the permanent single ship commitment to 7th Fleet should remain our premier contribution.

This post is based on the author’s recently released Policy Paper “The Asia-​Pacific and the Royal Canadian Navy,” published by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Eric Lerhe retired at the rank of Commodore from the Canadian Forces in September 2003 and commenced his doctoral studies at Dalhousie. His PhD was awarded in 2012 and his thesis on the sovereignty implications of Canada-​US interoperability was published by the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies. (Image courtesy of Canadian Forces Combat Camera, DND.)

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