Image credit: Harjit Sajjan and Mélanie Joly
In November of 2022, Canada finally published its long-awaited Indo-Pacific Strategy. In it, Ottawa laid out its ambitions to promote peace, resilience, and security; expand trade, investment, and supply chain resilience; invest in and connect people; build a sustainable and green future; and make Canada an active and engaged partner in the Indo-Pacific. The strategy seeks to readdress Canada’s approach to China—particularly towards protecting Canadian intellectual property and research while also countering foreign interference—and expand its diplomatic footing in a region that is growingly the global economic engine of the emerging multipolar order.
However, to make the Indo-Pacific Strategy prevalent among everyday Canadians, Ottawa needs to shape public opinion by better showcasing the relevance of the security and economic consequences emerging from the region. Specifically, Ottawa must demonstrate that our presence and investment in the Indo-Pacific serve our vital national interests, remarking the region’s indivisibility to the economic, civil, and security well-being of Canadians.
However, with Canadian political parties cherry-picking geopolitical issues for short-term political gains, Ottawa’s Indo-Pacific Strategy can become a political macguffin, thereby losing its influence and relevance among Canadians. To ensure that the Indo-Pacific Strategy is embraced and supported nationwide, Ottawa must demonstrate the natural essence of Canada as a Pacific country that has stakes in the region’s security and economic architectures.
A first step would be to recognize Chinese hegemonic aspirations in the South China and East China Seas, particularly in aiming to undermine the economic rules-based system for maritime trade. Specifically, Ottawa must articulate to Canadians its views on how China seeks to install a Sinocentric order that would erode notions of autonomy and openness, fundamental features for free trade and free navigation. If allowed to flourish, a Pax Sinica would empower Beijing to set the regional rules around trade and security, exploit natural resources through economic coercion, assert exclusive fishing rights, and grant it de facto authority over maritime mobility in the region. For Ottawa, this would have considerable implications for its supply chain resiliency and economic diversification as the region will have two-thirds of the global middle class by 2030 and more than half by 2040, vital economic markets for a country where trade accounts for 60.9 percent of its GDP.
A further step would be for Ottawa to deepen its presence on the Korean peninsula by demonstrating the peril of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation on Canadian security. Whether Canadians think of it or not, our security is directly tied to the Korean peninsula’s stability given our extra-regional and national security interests.
Given our historical commitment as a signatory to the Korean Armistice Agreement, Canada remains an integral partner for the UN Command Military Armistice Commission which is tasked with supervising the ceasefire. In the event of the armistice unraveling from a North Korean attack, conventional or nuclear, Ottawa would be responsible for ensuring the safety of its military personnel and obliged to send additional equipment, armaments, and military personnel to assist in efforts to defend South Korean sovereignty and potentially Japan. What is more, Ottawa would be responsible for evacuating thousands of Canadian citizens who reside in South Korea and Japan for work and overseas education.
Moreover, recent military developments including Pyongyang’s launch of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile—designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads and capable of reaching the continental United States—and the blazoning of a first-strike policy has significant implications for Canadian national security. Consequently, an erratic nuclear North Korea has calamitous consequences for the well-being of Canadians.
Climate change is another issue that impacts Canadian interests. Although the Trudeau government observes climate change as a global threat, the latter also has major repercussions for the Indo-Pacific. Given Ottawa’s response to the floods in Pakistan last summer, there would be expectations domestically and among regional partners to provide humanitarian and economic assistance. To increase our cooperation to combat climate disasters through an Indo-Pacific lens, Ottawa needs to demonstrate the inadvisable effects that future floods, draughts, coastal erosion, and extreme weather will have on Canadian economic, security, and immigration interests.
One such area that Ottawa must consider is the effects of climate change on fish migration and the Indo-Pacific’s fishing industry. With the region projected to have 60 percent of the world’s population, Ottawa must prepare for more frequent illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in or near its exclusive economic zone due to the Indo-Pacific’s depleting fish stocks and the warming of northern waters. With China conducting IUUs in the South China Sea and off South America, it is not inconceivable to expect similar occurrences on Canada’s western and Arctic coasts.
To amplify its message to the public, Ottawa must do more than boast about these threats to Canadians in foreign or defence policy statements. To incorporate these national issues into the civilian psyche, Ottawa needs to engage in more soft-power diplomatic activity that can deepen our people-to-people ties to the region. In this area, Ottawa needs to undertake more state visits and extend more invitations for the same beyond traditional relationships with the US, Australia, Japan, and South Korea that, although indispensable for Ottawa, often restrict our regional awareness.
To begin this process, Ottawa should reflect upon its evolving demographic of immigrants and first-generation Canadians from the Indo-Pacific—with one in five Canadians having roots in the region—including, but not limited to, South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh), the Philippines, and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia), as a way to showcase to Canadians that the region hosts a range of under-engaged relationships that must be pursued to amplify Canada’s presence in the region’s economic and security architectures.
As far as formalizing diplomatic relations, state visits are the highest form of bilateral meetings between countries. It demonstrates to the participating countries’ domestic audiences that there are existing and shared interests that warrant greater governmental interactions for resiliency and prosperity. State visits also offer more avenues for people-to-people ties to grow as they can give rise to supplementary initiatives that promote opportunities for citizen engagement through business, tourism, and education programs. These can bridge cultural and public gaps in understanding the importance of how Canadians and Indo-Pacific communities share common security and economic interests.
To accomplish this task, Ottawa should further reach out to the heads of state of Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, India, and the Philippines. Not only do these countries share Canada’s middle power interests, along with offering diplomatic avenues for Ottawa to expand its regional influence in security and economic architectures of the Indo Pacifc, but they also resonate with Canada’s diaspora communities from the region that will be crucial for expanding people-to-people ties.
To establish itself as a reliable partner and prioritize long-term investments in the Indo-Pacific while promoting an inclusive and prosperous regional order, Ottawa must clearly communicate to Canadians the connection between regional threats and opportunities and their daily lives. If Ottawa remains deterred and hesitant to project its vision for regional engagement onto Canadian public opinion, it will be unprepared, delayed, and unresponsive to the challenges emerging from the Indo-Pacific, yet again making Canada an outsider.
Andrew Erskine is a Young Fellow at IPD, a research analyst with the NATO Association of Canada, a researcher with the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers and the Editor in Chief at The New Global Order.