Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable
I was recently invited to present my views on Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy in discussion with Asian ambassadors in Ottawa. I noted that it’s better not to hold one’s breath waiting for a government policy document. That’s why Canada’s preferred foreign policy approach in normal times is what I would call strategic procrastination.
In reality, it often takes a crisis to generate movement. A China attack on Taiwan would certainly propel Indo-Pacific action forward. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine keeps our focus squarely on Euro-Atlantic commitments. Eight months into her role, Global Affairs Canada Minister Melanie Joly has recently turned to the classic delaying tactic of appointing a blue-ribbon panel to advise her on the Indo-Pacific.
Delay in policy formulation can actually be very useful. It can provide latitude for allowing situations to develop more clearly. A good example was the delayed decision to ban Huawei from 5G networks.
However, some commentators have worried about Canada being left out of the so-called AUKUS arrangement among Australia, the UK, and the U.S. Australia will pay a minimum of $70 billion, and more likely well over $100 billion, for nuclear submarines under this arrangement. We have other priorities.
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The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) is another arrangement where some observers lament Canada’s absence. Bringing together the U.S., India, Japan and Australia, Quad aims to counter the rise of China’s expansionist maritime claims. Canada already deploys frigates to the region annually, participating most recently in the Quad’s Sea Dragon naval exercise. Ramping this up in any noticeable way, say by establishing a permanent presence in Asia, would be very expensive and difficult to justify on a cost-benefit basis.
Absent a war, I would therefore expect the government to restrict commitments to perhaps a slightly increased level of naval deployments, along with stepped-up political and military visits, and incrementally more embassy personnel.
One substantive initiative would be to advocate a new Indo-Pacific organization modelled on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to bring all governments (including China, North Korea and Russia) together for permanent dialogue on security matters.
On the economic front, Asia certainly offers opportunities. But it’s not all roses. Arguably, there are already too many separate trade agreements in the region. More ambitious than joining all of them would be a Canadian initiative to combine them into one set of harmonized trade rules.
A far greater handicap is U.S.-China rivalry. The aggressive expansionist policies of the Chinese government, including refusal to comply with maritime law, the de facto takeover of Hong Kong, and threats to take control of Taiwan by force, are leading to a containment response from the U.S. and its allies. This increases the risks of war.
Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy should pursue a different course. While we should work with the U.S. on bringing strategic supply chains back to North America, Canada should also pursue sectoral agreements with China on agriculture and energy. Trade in agriculture should be depoliticized, especially in the face of expected food shortages globally.
Energy exports are far more controversial. We share the same world atmosphere, so the fact that China generates over 30 per cent, India seven per cent, and Japan 3.5 per cent of global CO2 emissions, compared to Canada’s 1.5 per cent, means that basing our energy policy on Canadian emissions alone ignores our global responsibilities. China continues to increase coal imports. Replacing it with Canadian LNG, which emits half the CO2, would help the transition to a cleaner energy mix that also includes renewables. Of course, such a strategy hinges on getting our own supply side prepared to meet the demand, which has been vexatious.
In reality, more modest supports for Canadian business are likely to appear in the eventual Indo-Pacific Strategy, combined with the beefing up of our trade and investment support capacities in the region and at home.
Ambitious or not, a strategy is just a starting point. Political-security and economic factors in Asia are dynamic and could change quickly. War over Taiwan is certainly within the realm of possibility, as are several other conflict and natural disaster scenarios.
If any of that happens, strategic procrastination could turn out to have been the wise approach yet again.
Randolph Mank is a former three-time Canadian ambassador in Asia and Director General for the region, who served as Director of Policy during the last foreign policy review. In the private sector, he was VP Asia for BlackBerry and President Asia for SICPA. He currently heads MankGlobal consulting, serves as a board director, and is a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Balsillie School of International Affairs.
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