Absent from the latest federal budget were commitments to Indo-Pacific priorities as Canadians await the government’s much-anticipated strategy for engagement in the region.
In the budget tabled on April 7, the Liberal government pledged an additional $8-billion in defence funding and to complete a defence review. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s (University-Rosedale, Ont.) comments on the budget’s foreign policy commitments spotlit Ukraine, noting that the rules-based international order is under the “greatest threat since its inception,” and remarking that democracies around the world can only be safe when Russian President Vladimir Putin and his armies are “entirely vanquished.”
Experts on Canada’s engagement with Asia noted that with the attention on Ukraine, they didn’t have an expectation there would be a focus on Indo-Pacific matters.
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The Globe and Mail reported earlier this year that an Indo-Pacific strategy was being circulated at the “top levels of the bureaucracy” and is supported with $3.5-billion over five years.
The development and launch of an Indo-Pacific strategy is highlighted in Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.) mandate letter, noting that the strategy has the objectives of deepening “diplomatic, economic, and defence partnerships and international assistance in the region.”
The government has already announced its intent to begin trade negotiations that would seemingly be fundamental to supporting increased trade away from China, including trade talks with Indonesia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and re-engaging with India towards an interim trade pact.
The Canada-China relationship has been beleaguered since Beijing arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in apparent retaliation to Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the U.S. in 2018. All three cases have since been resolved. Since then, Canada’s foreign policy attention has shifted to Europe and Ukraine.
While a focus on Indo-Pacific priorities is not in the budget, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada president Jeff Nankivell, most recently Canada’s consul general in Hong Kong, said he expects the strategy to be launched this year with the necessary resources announced when it is revealed.
“It’s important to get this done sooner rather than later,” said Nankivell, also a previous deputy head of mission at Canada’s Embassy in China. “It was signalled already a few years ago and it has taken too long to get to this point, so looking ahead, my hope would be that it’s a matter of a few months at most.”
With the shifting nature of geopolitics, he said it’s important for Canada to “step up” its engagement in Asia, including in southeast Asia where he remarked countries can partner on regional security and global issues.
“There’s really no time to lose,” he said.
Nankivell said the fact that Joly is in Indonesia and Vietnam this week amid the situation in Ukraine shows that she is committed to revealing the strategy this year.
“The fact that she is doing this travel this week, the fact that she [was] engaging with ambassadors and high commissioners from countries in Asia last month at a time when there was so many other things going on, I think those are pretty strong signals that the government has not lost its commitment to move on the Indo-Pacific strategy,” he said.
The former diplomat said Canada needs to “raise” its game in the region.
“Countries in the region have seen Canada over the years engage in a kind of sporadic way, but not in a sustained way,” he said. “It should be the aim of having an Indo-Pacific strategy … that we bring more sustained focus and resources to bear on those relationships.”
One of the measures of the strategy’s success, Nankivell said, is to have representatives of Indo-Pacific countries notice a significant change in Canada’s engagement.
He said the greatest opportunities for growth of new economic markets are in the Indo-Pacific.
“Investing in better relationships in the Indo-Pacific region is an investment in prosperity for Canadians because you simply won’t find opportunities on the same scale anywhere else in the world,” he said.
Former Canadian diplomat Philip Calvert, who served as ambassador to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos from 2012 to 2016, said he wasn’t surprised that there wasn’t a focus in the budget on the Indo-Pacific, given the government has been occupied with the crisis in Europe.
“I think they’ve made the decision that the most immediate threat comes to Canada from Russia,” said Calvert, who has served multiple postings at Canada’s Embassy in Beijing.
With the need for an Indo-Pacific strategy to be attached with funding, he said he expects that it has been pushed aside by Russia.
“Sometimes governments have a tendency to be easily distracted,” he said. “This has thrown them off a bit from their Indo-Pacific plans.”
“It’s unfortunate because it’s taken them a while to get the Indo-Pacific strategy up and running,” he said, noting that there have long been calls for greater predictability for Canada’s future engagement in the region.
He said what is important is for the government to keep the Indo-Pacific strategy in its sights and continue to work on it.
When the strategy is released, Calvert said he hopes it will identify what some of the key challenges are for Canada in Asia and how Canada can build credibility in Asia by looking at issues like climate change.
Former diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said Canada is in a position as a middle power where it must react to events, instead of being proactive.
“You can only do so much at one time—while [the Indo-Pacific is] important, it wasn’t urgent and immediate in the same sense that Ukraine was,” he said.
Not only is Canada’s attention on confronting Russia, but Ottawa will also likely have a role in the reconstruction of Ukraine after the war is over, he said.
Robertson said he expects the focus of the Indo-Pacific strategy to shift from trade to defence and security.
Former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques, who served in Beijing from 2012 to 2016, said he was expecting to see more on Indo-Pacific priorities in the budget, but that is encumbered by the need to confront Ukraine and the ongoing debate in Ottawa about the funding that will be tied to an Indo-Pacific strategy.
He said he doesn’t understand why it has taken the government so long to formulate its plan on future engagement with China, noting the delay in its decision on whether to allow Huawei in Canada’s 5G network is also puzzling.
Saint-Jacques suggested that there may be some “complacency” from the government, as Canada-China trade has been strong.
“We need the government to come up with a completely revised engagement strategy that recognizes China is a threat to security, to democracy, and it conducts interference activities in Canada,” he said. “We have to be a lot more proactive and firm with China and push back, but we don’t see any of that.”
He noted that the U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is also awaiting Canada’s new engagement plan with China and the Indo-Pacific.