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Canada needs its own policy for the Indo-Pacific, say experts

A recent defence agreement signed by Australia and Japan is a sign that alliances are beefing up in the Indo-Pacific, and Canada risks being left behind without a regional strategy of its own, experts say.

The two Pacific nations signed a deal for their militaries to work more closely in the face of Chinese strength in the region.

It follows other major agreements in the region, including one in which Australia, the U.K., and U.S. will develop nuclear submarines, stockpile missiles, and share technology.

The deals illustrate that the security situation in the Indo-Pacific is evolving despite the pandemic, said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a fellow with the Macdonald Laurier Institute and a former official with Global Affairs Canada.

Even without formal agreements, Canada has become a bigger player in the region, said Stephan Nagy, a professor of international affairs at International Christian University in Tokyo and a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, citing Canada’s visits to American bases in Japan, its help in ensuring that North Korea doesn’t evade UN sanctions, and its participation in multilateral anti-submarine exercises with the Quad, a major alliance that includes the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India.

Even so, Canada needs to “hurry up” in the Indo-Pacific, “because things are moving quickly and we’re very late to the party,” said Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University.

Nagy said he wouldn’t be surprised if “Canada forms a similar partnership with Japan,” but not before “a Canadian Indo-Pacific strategy demonstrating a clear … commitment to the region.”

Canada’s approach appears to be changing, judging by the mandate letters that Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Defence Minister Anita Anand received from the prime minister in December, directing them to develop a plan for the Indo-Pacific region.

Nagy said he expects that plan will come out later this year, after the U.S. administration releases its own revamped strategy.

Canada, however, shouldn’t wait any longer than that, Hampson and Miller said.

“A wait-and-see policy isn’t in Canada’s interest,” Hampson said. “(Canada is) serious about exploiting new markets in Asia,” as demonstrated by trade agreements like the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership. “Our Asian partners expect us to be security partners, (and) economics and security are two sides of the same coin.”

Waiting for the Americans “would go into the excuse camp, where (Canada has) been for a while,” Miller said.

While Donald Trump browbeat America’s allies, Barack Obama and President Joe Biden have taken a similar approach to the Indo-Pacific, and the Canadian government should already be familiar with it, Miller said.

Canada’s eventual Indo-Pacific strategy, its place in the region, and whether it joins these existing alliances will depend on what its military and diplomatic corps can offer the countries.

“We will have to take these new relationships into account,” said David Welch, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.

“No one is going to let us in, unless we can bring serious added value to the table,” Welch wrote in an email. “Our strengths are not in hard security assets, but in soft security assets, functional expertise, and so on. So we shouldn’t push on doors unlikely to open to us.”

Canada could also change its reputation as a military lightweight if it deployed more CP-140 planes and frigates to the region, he added.

Without dedicating more money or military resources to the region, though, Canada will have a hard time showing its commitment to the Indo-Pacific — but other options remain, Miller said.

Quickly and forcefully objecting to violations of international law and threats to Canada’s allies can help, he said, rather than “waiting to be the ninth (country to make) a statement.”

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