In The Media

Asia: Beyond trade, Canada must boost security

by Marius Grinius

June 30, 2015

The Team Canada trade visits by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and provincial premiers to various Asian countries in the mid-1990s highlighted Canada’s Golden Age of Asia.

At the same time Canada played a prominent role in Asian security matters. This included Canadian expert participation in deliberations on the South China Sea and in the North Pacific Cooperative Security Dialogue.

That particular Golden Age culminated with the government proclaiming 1997 as Canada’s Year of Asia Pacific.

Current trade statistics indicate that Canada has rediscovered Asia, at least in terms of commercial prospects. Less clear, however, is Canada’s commitment to the security and stability challenges that Asia continues to face.

Five of the top 20 global economies are Asian and significant annual GDP growth rates abound in the region.

Free trade agreements thrive in Asia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations looks to establish the ASEAN Economic Community by the end of 2015 as a single market. Japan, South Korea and China are negotiating a three-way trade deal. The most significant ongoing trade negotiation is the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes the United States, Japan and Canada, as well as four ASEAN members.

This spaghetti bowl of FTA agreements and negotiations underlines the economic dynamism of the Asia-Pacific region.

Canada’s trade deal with South Korea should be a bridgehead into Asia, where there are other ongoing bilateral trade negotiations. Canada’s 2013 Global Markets Action Plan aims to advance Canadian business interests and commercial opportunities.

China has long overtaken Japan as Canada’s second-largest trading partner. Canadian merchandise exports to China have almost doubled to $20.6 billion; but, Canada’s trade deficit with China has reached almost $40.0 billion as imports climbed to $58.6 billion.

Total trade with Japan has averaged about $24 billion, and $11.5 billion with South Korea. While Canada hesitates to negotiate a free trade agreement with China and join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Canada recently became a trading hub for China’s currency, the renminbi.

Tensions among players

Notwithstanding the economic success in Asia-Pacific and the incentives for even greater prosperity, potential military conflict may still jeopardize Asia’s economic achievements. China and Japan have territorial disputes in the East China Sea. China, Japan and the Koreas disagree over sensitive historic issues. India and Pakistan, having fought three wars, now retain nuclear weapons and mutual suspicions. ASEAN is again concerned about China’s aggressive territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. The Taiwan Strait remains another possible flashpoint. India and China have a longstanding border dispute. Russia occupies the Kuril Islands that once belonged to Japan. Violent secessionist movements exist in China, India, Myanmar and the Philippines. Sri Lanka only recently ended a bloody civil war. China is deeply suspicious of the ongoing United States rebalancing of military forces towards Asia, even as the US is concerned about China’s growing military prowess.

Military spending in Asia remains among the highest in the world. The nuclear weapon dimension is also prospering. China, India and Pakistan are modernizing their nuclear forces, as are Russia and the US. North Korea remains an unpredictable rogue state with nuclear weapons and an abysmal human rights record.

Canada’s security record

While Canada has considerable economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region, its security record there is modest. When we are looking to closer economic ties with the area, it would make sense for Canada to contribute substantially to its long-term stability and security architecture. Canada has in the past.

Outside of direct bilateral relations with Asia-Pacific countries, Canada’s collective relationship with ASEAN is most important. Canada has been an ASEAN Dialogue Partner since 1977.

But when ASEAN inaugurated the first East Asia Summit in 2005, Canada was not invited. The following year ASEAN established the Defence Ministers Meeting as “the highest defence consultative and cooperative mechanism in ASEAN.” In 2010 ASEAN invited the EAS Dialogue Partners to participate in the ADMM-Plus. Again, Canada was not there.

In its pursuit of EAS and ADMM-Plus membership Canada has done many of the right moves. ASEAN, however, is still not quite convinced of Canada’s commitment to Southeast Asia, or to Asia, and continues politely to stall until Canada can demonstrate a serious, long-term track record of participation in ASEAN strategic and security priorities. The Asian way requires frequent and consistent face-time. Relationships matter.

The Department of National Defence states that “multilateral defence relations are an important component of Canada’s overall engagement in the Asia Pacific region.” DND mentions the annual meeting of the US Pacific Command Chiefs of Defence Conference, which Canada’s chief of defence staff attends religiously.

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore is described as "a crucial venue for dialogue on the security and defence of the region...attended by ministers and chiefs of defence.”

While the chief of defence has been a regular participant, Canada’s defence ministers have missed most years. Such ministerial absences are noted by Asian counterparts and opportunities for high-level bilateral talks are missed.

Despite modest resources, the Canadian military has shown that it can be a serious player. Canada participates in the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise and in annual exercises on the Korean Peninsula where Canada is a member of UN Command. Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team has deployed to Pakistan, the Philippines and Nepal. Canada has a modest but effective program that trains military personnel from 10 Asian countries. The Royal Canadian Navy holds annual ship visits to Asia.

Canada holds regular high-level political/military talks with Japan and Australia and has moved to enhance its military relationship with China with senior visits and the signing of a non-binding Cooperation Plan Initiative in 2013. Canada signed the important Asia Pacific Defence Cooperation Policy Framework with the United States in November 2013.

Canada must demonstrate a stronger and more consistent commitment to Asia that goes well beyond the economic-commercial dimension. It must include a robust defence and security dimension. 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 able to meet the challenges of the 21st century. This applies to Canada’s approach to the Asia-Pacific region as much as to the rest of the world. Neither a Global Markets Action Plan nor a separate Canada First Defence Strategy, both formulated in a policy vacuum, is sufficient. There is a serious need for a foreign policy and defence policy review, one where the Asia-Pacific region will be prominent.

Marius Grinius previously served as Canada’s ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea and North Korea, as well as permanent representative to the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. His latest paper, Canada and Asia: Prosperity and Security, was recently published by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (formerly CDFAI).

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