Why Canada Should Embrace the Southeast Asia Imperative

Main Image Credit Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with leaders of ASEAN states in 2017. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo

With the appointment of new ministers of foreign affairs and defence, Canada has an opportunity to strengthen its regional engagement in Southeast Asia.

The changing dynamic between great and middle power actors in Southeast Asia requires the newly re-elected Canadian government to increase its own focus on the region. The decision of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appoint new ministers of foreign affairs and defence makes this priority easier to constructively pursue.

The Trump administration's use of a longstanding extradition treaty to seek the detention and transfer of a senior Huawei executive – who, while defending her position before the Canadian courts, endured house arrest in her luxurious Vancouver home for almost three years – badly skewed Canada–China relations. This was made worse by the Chinese authorities’ almost concurrent decision to detain and imprison two Canadians on visa-permitted visits to China in what could only be viewed as hostage diplomacy of the most egregious variety. The Chinese administration's refusal to distinguish between a treaty obligation to due process and a capricious imprisonment of innocent individuals speaks not to the absence of sophistication in their analysis, but to the reprehensible tendency of authoritarian and entrenched regimes to intimidate, threaten and brutalise.

Public regard for China among Canadians has changed from a balanced, open-minded level of engagement to unprecedented levels of hostility, only made worse by awkward Chinese embassy harangues about how Canadians should or should not vote in the most recent federal election. These unbecoming and amateurish harangues were backed up by apparent and successful electoral interference by Chinese state media and other Chinese Communist Party initiatives aimed at defeating Conservative candidates in British Columbia and Ontario constituencies. This is all made more complex by the prime minister's general pro-China disposition which, in some measure, was inherited from the Pierre Trudeau administration (1968–74) that moved early on formal recognition of the Beijing regime.

While the deferred prosecution agreement negotiated between Huawei lawyers and the US Department of Justice saw the Huawei executive return home to China safely, and the simultaneous liberation of the two Canadian hostages and their return to Canada, since the 20 September election there has been little recovery in goodwill between the two countries.

Royal Canadian Navy surface platform deployments as part of UK and US freedom of navigation missions through both the South China Sea and the Strait of Taiwan took place before the Huawei hostage crisis and have continued since. They are not likely to abate, despite even more awkward Chinese criticism of Canada.

The recent focus on China is not an accurate reflection of Canada's broad strategic and economic interest in the region

The understandable – if unbalanced – recent focus on China is not an accurate reflection of Canada's broad strategic and economic interest in the region. Commonwealth allies and partners in the region such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Pakistan all reflect different but important strands of Canada’s economic, strategic and industry-specific objectives in its relations with the region, as do other countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines, all of whom have large expat communities in Canada.

A new free trade agreement with South Korea – signed by the Harper administration in 2014 – which is generous in its provisions across broad areas of the respective economies and optimistic in its intent, has not been capitalised on to the extent that the national interests of both parties should dictate. Canada has failed to increase its Pacific Fleet capacity in a way that truly reflects its context as a Pacific Rim middle power. Broad and constructive immigration of students and well-qualified economic migrants, as well as Canada’s extensive corporate presence and investment in different Asian centres through industries like insurance, wealth management, engineering and development, speaks to a need to prioritise Canada's Southeast Asian goals and commitments.

It is not clear, however, that all Canadian allies and partners in the region share an interest in enhanced Canadian engagement.

The new Australia–UK–US (AUKUS) regional technology and sub-surface nuclear propulsion alliance as a countervail to enhanced Chinese aggressive aspirations and comportment does not include any real or prospective role for Canada.

To be fair, Canada's naval assets deployable to the region are modest, and it is not clear that the present Canadian government has ever seriously considered a ‘pivot’ to Asia as others among our allies have. There has been no substantive comment on the new AUKUS strategic agreement from any Canadian minister. Whatever the actual reality inside the Canadian government, conveying either disinterest or, worse, intimidation by Beijing is both shortsighted and counterproductive.

A Canadian Southeast Asia strategy – currently being considered by an in-house working group in Ottawa – incorporating defence, trade, democracy protection and promotion, and defending and deepening economic interests with our partners, is long overdue. Canada’s strong education system, and its defence education and capacity-building outreach more specifically, could also support deeper engagement in the region. Projecting capability to support both scientific and defence diplomacy in the region, with the right levels of diplomatic infrastructure and in-country representation to facilitate such engagement on a multi-year basis, could support work towards broader strategic goals.

Setting the opportunity for engagement aside would seriously weaken Canada's economic and strategic prospects in the region

These efforts could also intersect productively with the direction currently being taken by close partners of Canada such as the UK, Australia and the US. The most recent strategic security reviews of these allies have confirmed broad plans for a diplomatic and security-sensitive capacity investment in the Southeast Asian region. The UK has even applied for associate membership of ASEAN.

For Canada, a bolstered allied presence in the region would achieve a number of things. Firstly, at a time when multilateral benefits are unclear, it would enable the development of more meaningful and focused relationships with Canada’s Five Eyes partners. Secondly, it could provide the foundation for enabling trade diversification, the promotion of human rights and democracy in the region and support for stability in the South China Sea. A hopeful outcome of this engagement might be an increase in the number of international students coming to Canada through international studentships or exchanges. This educational experience could not only produce more region-wide ‘friends’ for Canada in the future, but also add to the student experience of what is currently a predominantly Chinese-heavy international student body in Canada.

Two new ministers with cabinet experience, a newly re-elected government, and a neighbouring Biden administration far less dismissive of allied concerns or needs than its predecessor all represent meaningful context changes that should facilitate constructive Canadian engagement in the region. The UK's clear deployment of serious maritime assets to the region is an important signal from our longest serving military ally. Setting the opportunity aside would seriously weaken Canada's economic and strategic prospects in the region.

It is likely that the extensive briefing books prepared for the two new Canadian ministers of foreign affairs and defence by their departments will urge risk-averse caution and no new initiatives. Sometimes, however, new ministers are well-advised not to take all the advice their public servants offer.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Professor Ann M. Fitz-Gerald

Senior Associate Fellow

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The Hon. Hugh Segal OC OOnt CD

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