Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy says the region plays a ‘critical role in shaping the country’s future over the next half-century’. The comprehensive and well-resourced strategy, published late last year, seeks to expand Canada’s collaboration with other countries in the region and follows four years of ‘frigid relations with Beijing’. It offers great potential for Australia to be a key ally and partner.
Australia and Canada can work closely in key areas it outlines and it’s timely to identify how they can best do this. Global Affairs Canada, the department managing diplomatic relations, says the two nations enjoy strong and multifaceted bilateral relations, regularly consulting on international issues based on their policy convergence in areas such as defence and security, trade ($4.8 billion two-way), investment ($67.7 billion two-way), economic growth, illegal migration, counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, and on social areas including Indigenous peoples, transportation and regional matters. Canada’s defence relationship with Australia is its largest in the Asia–Pacific.
Both nations have felt China’s coercion on trade and arbitrary detention in retaliation for perceived slights. Both have been adversely affected by China’s predatory business practices. Canada’s strategy helps companies diversify away from China to other countries in the region and helps manage risk exposure to China-related business tactics. The need for such diversification was identified by Canada’s former ambassador to China, Dominic Barton. The strategy is also clear on the need to retain trade with China while opening new trade and investment opportunities.
Australia has engaged closely in the Indo-Pacific but without the kind of comprehensive strategy that other nations, and the European Union, have in place. Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper, has a short section on the Indo-Pacific while the 2020 defence strategic update, ministerial announcements and press releases all deal with the region. Significant initiatives include the Quad, AUKUS, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s statement at the 2022 NATO summit in Madrid, and membership of the Pacific Islands Forum. Albanese announced soon after he came to power in 2022 a defence strategic review to help better understand where Defence should prioritise investment and ensure that the Australian Defence Force is well positioned to meet the nation’s security challenges through to 2033 and beyond. The review, to be delivered early this year, can only help to inform strategy and won’t represent a comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy.
We have previously proposed that both countries would benefit by implementing detailed strategies to guide their relations with other nations and regional multilateral forums. This requires more than a framing of strategy by ministerial speeches as with the then Canadian foreign minister’s 2020 speech that used ‘challenge, compete, cooperate, coexist’ to describe Canada’s relations with China. Keywords and taglines do not answer strategic questions about sectors to be dealt with, priority areas, how this approach will be carried out, with whom, and what resources will be required.
Taglines don’t help make strategic decisions or identify how other nations can most constructively engage. That’s what the Canadian strategy helps facilitate with its five core objectives: promoting peace, resilience and security; expanding trade, investment and supply chain resilience; investing in and connecting people; building a sustainable and green future; and being an active and engaged partner in the Indo-Pacific. If well-developed and implemented, these objectives should help Canadian and Australian policy frameworks operate collaboratively. Canada and Australia have had long-term defence and security engagements, but this does not mean that Canada needs to be a full member of all regional defence collaborations. Australia is a member of the Quad and AUKUS, and Canada is not. But Ottawa can contribute ideas and resources to effect a more sustained effort to engage allies and reflect Canadian interests. Working with the allies’ technology working groups including those on artificial intelligence, biotechnology, advanced materials, photonics, quantum, and oceans technologies will help. Intensification of the level of cooperation around robust intelligence, defence and foreign policy programs will keep Canada moving forward in these vital areas.
A new, more co-ordinated approach to Indo-Pacific strategy will serve Australian and Canadian diversification plans and deepen diplomatic engagement and partnerships more generally. This approach signals to traditional allies, including the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, that Canada is more closely aligning with them. But a widening of partners can (and should) include connecting with France’s interests in the South Pacific.
Canada and Australia should see themselves not only as members of a coalition of like-minded middle powers such as India, Japan and South Korea, but also as aligned with a broader range of countries with whom many interests are shared, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and others, as well as the Pacific island nations. Canada’s ocean-management practices and technologies could be of great use to Pacific countries, particularly those facing over-fishing from Chinese vessels. In some areas, such as mitigating climate change and protecting global biodiversity, shared interests with China will offer new opportunities for positive engagement. For Australia and Canada, developments in the South China Sea and Taiwan remain primary security concerns and enhancing economic relations with Taiwan is also of particular importance.
Australia and Canada have experienced recent lessons in contemporary geopolitics when dealing with China. Both are adapting to new realities of strategic power competition across the Indo-Pacific. Canada’s strategy can facilitate co-operation, intelligence- and expertise-sharing, and collaboration around deepening and diversifying regional economic ties. The strategy promotes sustainable development partnerships across the Indo-Pacific while upholding democratic values and human rights. The challenge will be for both countries to implement their Indo-Pacific strategies so that they connect ground-level initiatives to broader opportunities and help re-balance the most difficult relationships where possible.
But Australia and Canada cannot assume the autocratic powers will alter their drive to change the international rules-based order to their liking, or that the US will not revert to a hard-line ‘America first’ national security strategy should political circumstances change. The two Commonwealth countries are ideally suited to collaborate on many initiatives in the region, but it would be disingenuous to sugar-coat the challenges ahead. Their strategies will need to be operationally clear and well resourced so that objectives are achievable and politically savvy.