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Johnsen Romero in The Hill Times: Armed With a Strategy, is Canada Talking With or Talking Past Asia?

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The following commentary was originally published by The Hill Times.

On the heels of Ottawa’s newly minted Indo-Pacific Strategy, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly took to Europe as the first place to present Canada’s redefined approach to Asia. Attending a late-November NATO summit in Bucharest, Joly shared Canada’s plans to deploy frigates through the Taiwan Strait, raise defence spending, and “invest in deterrence.” The degree to which the views of Asian capitals had any influence on the security dimensions of Ottawa’s Indo-Pacific rethink, however, is less clear.

Given the purpose of the strategy is to establish Canada’s commitment to engaging the region, the choice to present it to transatlantic allies on the other side of the globe appears counterintuitive. One can attribute the unfortunate timing to the plan’s much-delayed release, but the symbolism of Joly holding consultations over the Indo-Pacific in a room devoid of anyone from the neighbourhood is no less glaring.

That Asia has loudly — and repeatedly — voiced its perspectives on how external partners should engage the region should warrant greater attention in Ottawa. If the strategy is to be successful, Canada’s diplomats would do well to listen to what Asia is saying and not just NATO ministers that have agreed on “the systemic challenges posed by the [People’s Republic of China] to Euro-Atlantic security.”

That Asia has loudly — and repeatedly — voiced its perspectives on how external partners should engage the region should warrant greater attention in Ottawa.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi frankly told the United Nations General Assembly what Jakarta thinks of a bloc-based approach towards the region in a recent address. Remarking on “minilateral groupings” that have acted “as a tool for containment and alienation,” she condemned efforts to circumvent the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), saying “we refuse to be a pawn in a new Cold War,” and championing the group’s paradigm of collaborating with all states. Much appears to be lost in translation between Indonesian rhetoric and Canada’s promise of an Indo-Pacific strategy that “deeply respects the centrality of ASEAN in the region.”

To be clear, Ottawa’s strategy says many of the right things, including commitments to increase participation in ASEAN fora, deepen defence co-operation and training initiatives with Southeast Asia’s armed forces, and align itself with ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. The problem lies in how echoing “ASEAN centrality” is not the same as understanding what it means, let alone addressing the core concerns that Asia is attempting to convey.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh warned against “the formation of regional alliances to overthrow or destroy the interests of others.” On the same day, his Vietnamese counterpart, General Phan Văn Giang, reiterated that Hanoi would “not join any military alliances [or] side with one country against another.” Hours earlier, Indonesia’s Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto underscored his country’s “own Asian way” of pursuing understanding and communication, adding that “to respect the interests of all our neighbours and of all the big powers in this region is essential.”

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended ASEAN’s annual summit as a special guest of host Cambodia last month, he signed off on a joint statement that affirmed ASEAN-led mechanisms as the primary setting for security dialogue, confidence-building, and preventive diplomacy. Southeast Asian leaders summed up the importance of this point beyond a mere slogan in their own Indo-Pacific declaration. It called on “external partners to support and undertake substantive, practical and tangible co-operation” with ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, and again through the organization’s existing frameworks.

Canada’s actions in the region to demonstrate its security commitments in concert with the “likeminded,” however, appear to risk ignoring what Asian capitals actually think of them. Far from having its fears of insecurity alleviated, Southeast Asia has at times reacted swiftly to criticize the policy steps of external partners for contributing to regional tensions.

When United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi undertook a trip to Taiwan, ASEAN rushed to produce a joint statement as Chinese drills were underway that called for maximal restraint and “refrain from provocative action.” The group’s opinion on which parties bore responsibility was not one-sided. The Philippines’ national security adviser Clarita Carlos bluntly observed that it was Pelosi’s visit that would “ratchet up the temperature in the region.”

Similar gaps in perception have followed the emergence of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) and AUKUS, the trilateral pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. Commenting on both, Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen noted that “despite the assurance that it is not focused on any one country, I think the more initiated will conclude otherwise that it is.” On the latter, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad accused Australia of “escalating the threat” of war and contradicting ASEAN’s preference to resolve issues through negotiation, adding that partners continue to lobby the region to confront Beijing. In the most recent gathering of the Trilateral Commission’s Asia-Pacific group, incoming director Masahisa Ikeda described members’ beliefs that “U.S. policy toward Asia, especially toward China, has been narrow-minded” and that there are demands to acknowledge Asian points of view.

That Canada says its strategy is “answering the call from regional partners for deeper engagement” when its actions presuppose what those calls are — and presuppose them incorrectly — will not give Asia reason to treat Ottawa seriously.

An approach to security challenges in Asia that does not bother to engage with the regional institutions that are purposed with dealing with them positions Canada and its like-minded as partners in bad faith. Employing the rhetoric of “ASEAN centrality” is insufficient. That Canada says its strategy is “answering the call from regional partners for deeper engagement” when its actions presuppose what those calls are — and presuppose them incorrectly — will not give Asia reason to treat Ottawa seriously.

If Canada is genuine about being a force for peace and security in the Indo-Pacific, it should start with being attuned to what its governments are saying. Diplomatic channels and dialogue mechanisms to avert regional escalation already exist, but Ottawa needs to use them, not merely pay them lip service. Failing to do so will not only justify why Asia’s capitals are not asking for “more Canada,” but why they might instead ask for less.

Written By:
Johnsen Romero
Johnsen is a Research Associate at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. He was a Yenching Scholar at Peking University and previously served as a policy analyst for Global Affairs Canada and as a researcher at the Department of Finance.
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