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HomeAsiaCanada’s Interests in Asia: More Engagement, Less Containment

Canada’s Interests in Asia: More Engagement, Less Containment

Image credit: US Embassy in New Zealand

By Zachary Paikin

Ottawa should avoid a short-term, containment-centric approach to China and align its efforts with those that emphasize the importance of reaching an equilibrium between engagement and a firm hand with Beijing.

The year 2020 was a challenging one for China. On top of the COVID-19 pandemic, the past twelve months have witnessed growing concerns over the situations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, a border clash with India, and an increasingly assertive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. Nonetheless, the year was capped off by the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Asian mega-trading bloc (RCEP) and the conclusion in principle of a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between China and the European Union (CAI).

In short, rising tensions between Beijing and other capitals have failed to produce a monolithic anti-China coalition – a fact which should serve as the starting point for any discussion of what Canada’s national interests are in a shifting Asian landscape. This raises the question of which states (or groupings of states) Canada should identify as its long-term strategic partners. Upon examination, Canadian and US regional interests are less aligned than is conventionally assumed.

It is worth re-emphasizing this point: China cannot be contained. The US may successfully persuade its allies to ban Huawei’s 5G technology and Washington may slap tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese products, but these moves alone will not arrest China’s long-term rise. RCEP has further cemented Beijing’s place within Asia’s economic framework, even as trade between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) already exceeds China’s trade with either the EU or the US.

This should raise doubts about whether the US-backed vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) provides an accurate reading of emerging regional dynamics. The terms “free” and “open” hint, not so subtly, that the paradigm is designed to hedge against the possible implications of China’s rise. If the goal of the “Indo-Pacific” imaginary is to underline the region’s multipolarity, then it merely reflects Asia’s existing balance of power. If its purpose is to ensure that Beijing only plays a secondary role in shaping Asia’s economic and security architecture, then it will not succeed. ASEAN has made reference to the “Indo-Pacific”, but with the aim of emphasizing its own regional “centrality” and insulation from great power politics rather than to join an anti-China crusade.

For its part, the EU-China CAI points to Europe’s reluctance to take sides in any new cold war between the US and China. This position is underpinned by a broad popular consensus across the continent and is buttressed by the EU’s desire for greater “strategic autonomy”. The bloc has labelled China a “systemic rival” and insists that CAI represents merely one component of its China strategy, leaving ample room for transatlantic cooperation on other China-related issues. Nonetheless, the agreement signals a belief in Brussels that there is no substitute for engagement with Beijing. Situated at opposite ends of the massive Eurasian supercontinent, China does not pose a military threat to Europe. Moreover, the EU retains a strong incentive to continue deepening its economic relationship with China, with the latter having overtaken the US as its top trading partner in goods in 2020.

Given the sheer distance between the world’s two leading powers, the extent to which China’s rise represents a direct threat to US security is also circumscribed. Rather, the challenge that Beijing poses is to American regional primacy. Efforts to maintain this primacy have invited a zero-sum competition with China which stands to erode – rather than preserve – elements of the existing rules-based international order. Such a contest threatens Canada’s ability to secure an independent place for itself on the world stage, whether through trade diversification or multilateral problem-solving.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s recent statement that Canada’s national interest in the nascent great power competition should be “expressed in a way that aligns” with that of the United States is therefore problematic. Canada retains a significant interest in preserving its alliance with the US, but this does not imply that Canadian and American interests align in every region across the globe. A more honest appraisal of where our interests diverge would strengthen the substance and impact of Canada-US cooperation in instances when our two countries partner with each other.

The past several decades of growth and relative stability in Asia have occurred in the context of US regional primacy. However, as the regional balance of power evolves, these two phenomena will not necessarily remain mutually reinforcing. By upholding the historical memory of World War II and discouraging a Sino-Japanese rapprochement on a par with the Franco-German postwar reconciliation, Washington is pursuing its own interest of playing off regional actors against one another to hedge against the possible emergence of a local hegemon. US primacy has been a means to a desired end – Canada would do well not to confuse the latter with the former.

Given the emphasis placed on the continental and transatlantic dimensions of its foreign policy over the past seven decades, Canada remains militarily and strategically underinvested in the Pacific theatre. Moreover, the Trudeau government has failed to articulate a clear and comprehensive paradigm to guide the Asian vector of Canadian foreign policy, which has helped to transform the issue of relations with China into a domestic political football. These trends have left Canada in a reactive posture and bereft of a consensus national strategy in the face of a shifting international order. Canada is perceived as an unserious and inconsistently engaged player whose largely values-centric foreign policy betrays the absence of genuine interests.

If Canada wishes to play a role in shaping the Pacific theatre’s regional architecture in line with its interests, then its primary partners should be the EU and ASEAN. Ottawa inked a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Brussels in 2016, while Canada and ASEAN agreed last year to elevate their dialogue to the level of a strategic partnership, providing a solid foundation for the further deepening of relations.

Given the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and India’s absence from RCEP, the FOIP concept will inevitably adopt military rather than economic overtones. This does not play to Canada’s existing strengths. Ottawa should avoid a short-term, containment-centric approach to China and align its efforts with those that emphasize the importance of reaching an equilibrium between engagement and a firm hand with Beijing. (Sustained dialogue with Japan and India will also prove useful in this regard. Tokyo has increasingly sought to balance competition with Beijing with attempts to adjust to the implications of China’s rise, while New Delhi’s longstanding posture of non-alignment is likely to survive the recent downturn in Sino-Indian relations.)

If Ottawa decides that outlining an “Indo-Pacific” strategy is in the national interest, then this should be closely coordinated with the EU and ASEAN, explicitly avoid the “free and open” qualifier, and underscore the importance of positive-sum interaction in the region. Any strategy that exposes a gulf between pronouncements and capabilities risks sidelining Canada even further from emerging regional dynamics. Adopting a longer-term perspective would also align with other Canadian strategic interests. One of the things that Canada does exceptionally well is accept and integrate large numbers of immigrants. Sustained population growth can serve as a means of increasing Canada’s international clout, creating a mutually reinforcing link between foreign and domestic policy.

Canada should resist the urge to align with other Anglo-Saxon countries and prioritize a dispassionate analysis of its national interests. The US and Australia have been FOIP’s strongest proponents, while post-Brexit Britain has taken a stern line against Beijing and sought to strengthen the military dimension of its engagement in Asia. Political culture and strategic culture are two different things. Internalizing this fact will likely represent the difference between whether Canada adopts a term-setting mentality in the emerging international order or cements its status as a vassal of the United States.

Dr. Zachary Paikin is a Nonresident Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels (CEPS).