Plan to boost diplomatic footprint in Indo-Pacific scant on details for new demands on foreign service
With diplomatic capacity-building projects in Eastern Europe, Africa, and now in the Indo-Pacific, implementation will be a ‘challenge’ as recruitment will come under focus, say experts and former diplomats.
With a pledge to boost its diplomatic capacity in the Indo-Pacific region as part of the government’s $2.3-billion strategy, Canada’s foreign service will be pulled in several directions as the government seeks to increase its diplomatic reach.
When revealing the strategy on Nov. 27, the government announced it would earmark $100-million over five years to boost capacity at Canadian embassies and high commissions abroad and back at headquarters in Ottawa. A new high commission was announced for Fiji, as well as a commitment to post a Canadian diplomat in Hawaii.
The Canadian government is still working to determine where new diplomats will be located in the Indo-Pacific region, according to a senior government offical
Prior to the strategy launch, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) said there would be 60 new diplomatic jobs in the region, according to the Canadian Press. The strategy doesn’t indicate a specific target for new diplomats in the Indo-Pacific.
The government had previously announced that $92.5-million will be included in the strategy to boost diplomatic capacity at home and in the region. Asked whether the $92.5-million is within the $100-million commitment or if the two are separate pledges, a spokesperson for Global Affairs said they represent the same funding announcement, but reflect a difference in accounting numbers. “For clarity and consistency,” the spokesperson said in an email, “we have we have adjusted the figures online to reflect cash accounting figures,” which is $100-million.
The strategy did note that the new positions will include “diplomacy, international security, trade and economic, international development, and climate issues.”
The nearly $2.3-billion strategy seeks to reorient Canada’s presence in the region, calling China an “increasingly disruptive global power.” The long-anticipated document was launched in Vancouver on Nov. 27 by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.), International Trade Minister Mary Ng (Markham-Thornhill, Ont.), International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.), and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.).
“Resources are not unlimited,” said University of Toronto professor Janice Stein, who served as co-chair of the Indo-Pacific Advisory Committee. “I think there will be some shift of people and focus towards the Indo-Pacific.”
“I would be surprised if there were not a shift from Europe, and possibly the Middle East as well,” Stein told The Hill Times just prior to the release of the strategy. “That’s what it means when you make a region a region of priority, because you can’t do everything.”
Canada has also announced new missions and an increased diplomatic focus in Eastern Europe and Africa, which includes embassies and high commissions in Armenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia, as well as in Rwanda, and a permanent observer post to the African Union. The government has said it will further expand its presence in Africa.
Staffing the multitude of regions that the foreign service is being pulled towards will be a “challenge,” said former Canadian diplomat Guy Saint-Jacques.
“But it’s something that can be done and should have been done,” said Saint-Jacques, a former ambassador to China and a past director general for personnel management.
He said Canada hasn’t devoted sufficient attention to recruitment over the last 10 to 15 years.
Without a significant emphasis on recruitment, Saint-Jacques said the staffing capacity of the department has “eroded” and “weakened.”
“It is time now to build this back,” he said, noting that to attract people, those with specialized areas need to be rewarded.
He said recruiting for the new positions will be a “huge effort,” and that increasing diplomatic capacity in the region is the “right approach.”
“We have to know China better, because they won’t go away. We have to understand what makes them tick and how they function,” he said.
He remarked that one of the challenges will involve foreign-language training, as diplomats are far more efficient when they speak the local language.
A recent report from Canadian diplomat Ulric Shannon, written while on leave from Global Affairs, found that foreign language compliance is at 23 per cent, which dips to 18 per cent at the executive level.
The report also detailed the work that the department has done since 2021 to create increased capacity on China, especially with political and regional analysis. Mandarin compliance in the department was 14 per cent.
As part of the strategy, the government announced that a special envoy position will be created to co-ordinate Ottawa’s approach in the Indo-Pacific.
Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) president Pamela Isfeld said details are still needed about new diplomatic positions and how capacity can be increased.
“If this happens, this is great. It’s great for the foreign service in terms of really getting people out there and using them,” she said. “But I’m not quite sure that the rubber meets the road, and that’s always where the problem comes iShe said increased diplomatic jobs and opportunities are always a positive, but there is a question of whether the foreign service has the right people to staff the added roles.
“You shouldn’t be sending somebody off to Armenia the same way you would send someone off to Houston,” she said, noting that language and local knowledge is required.
Global Affairs is in the middle of a review of its foreign service to ensure that it has the personnel it needs to perform required duties, as well as technological and digital abilities, and to examine its global presence. The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade is also undergoing a review of the machinery of Canada’s foreign service.
Canada is an outlier among its allies when it comes to the high concentration of diplomats Global Affairs has stationed at its headquarters opposed to abroad. Only around 18 per cent of Canadian diplomats are posted abroad.
Past Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the government has made a “compelling case” that the Indo-Pacific is becoming increasingly important to Canada and there is a need for more people on the ground.
He said there is a question of what those people on the ground will be doing.
“Is it defence, security, intelligence, trade promotion, agriculture?” he asked. “The devil will be in the details, but at least the intent is there and now the test will be for senior civil servants to implement this.”
He said there is a need for more people in the foreign service overall, not just transitioning people from another region to the Indo-Pacific.
Robertson said the expansion of diplomatic capacity in several regions around the globe will be a challenge for the department.
“It means we should be recruiting now, because all of this takes a couple of years before we can get anyone in the field on a first assignment,” he said.
“We need to grow our foreign service,” he said, remarking that there is also a need to grow capacity on the defence and security side, as well.
Former Canadian ambassador to Vietnam Deanna Horton said Canada has a built-in advantage in boosting its diplomatic capacity in the region, remarking that the government has yet to capitalize on the large number of Canadians in Asia, and the extensive Canadian university alumni networks in the region and their knowledge of local economies and cultures.
“The government should be taking the resources that are already there—in terms of knowledge of cultures and local economies—[and] leveraging what we already have, which has not been a focus up until now, but I think people realize that is important,” she said.
Randolph Mank, who was a Canadian ambassador to Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia, said it is the nature of government officials to want more people, but the question is how they will be best deployed.
“It’s not automatic that more people leads to greater results, but it certainly can help,” he said, adding that more needs to be done in Southeast Asia.
“Southeast Asia is not free of challenges, but you’ve got some big markets,” he said.
Mank said officials need to be deployed in a way by which their work can match that of the business community and civil society in those regions.
In the strategy, the government also announced $31.8-million over five years for the opening of the first Agriculture and Agri-Food office in the region, as well as $45-million over five years for “large-scale” trade missions. Ottawa will also appoint an Indo-Pacific trade representative.
Sustained engagement a key to strategy’s success: experts
According to a background document, the $100-million Indo-Pacific regional capacity uplift project will help to “ensure that Canada has the capacity to co-ordinate sustained engagement,” as well as “seize emerging opportunities” and “quickly and efficiently respond to regional developments and challenges.”
Just prior to the release of the strategy, Indo-Pacific experts and former diplomats said sustained engagement in the region where Canada has had an inconsistent footprint will be vital for its success.
“We are considered as being inconstant in terms of our attention. We get enthusiastic for a period and then they don’t see much of us for years,” said Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada president Jeff Nankivell, a former Canadian diplomat who was consul general in Hong Kong and deputy head of mission to China.
“That’s what you hear from leaders in the region in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia. They will say, ‘Canada has come and gone over the years. We don’t see a sustained commitment,’” he said. “That’s the challenge that Canada has to address.”
The strategy earmarked $24.5-million over five years for the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada to open a “physical presence” in the Indo-Pacific region, which Nankivell said will be in Singapore.
Stein said Canada has been engaged in the region in an “erratic way” in the past.
“In the Indo-Pacific, that just doesn’t work. It’s not about coming; it’s about staying and engaging in a very sustained way,” she said, adding that Canada will have to earn trust in the region.
“It’s pretty clear about how you earn it. You come, you stay, you engage, and you stay and engage over the long term,” Stein added.