insidepolicyglobalsecurityCanada should work with Australia in supporting Southeast Asian countries so that they are better able to resist Chinese pressure, threats, and coercion, writes Peter Layton.

This article is part of a new series of Inside Policy posts that will explore different aspects of global security - in a continuation of MLI's Global Security Look Ahead project.

By Peter Layton, March 2, 2017

Canada and Australia are remarkably alike in many areas.  It was no surprise that Prime Minister Stephen Harper in addressing the Australian Parliament in 2007 called the countries: “strategic cousins.”  Given this, with some proposing Canada should shift its military focus westward into Asia, it seems only sensible that the two countries should cooperate more fully.

As middle powers, Canada and Australia already undertake significant cooperation across governmental, commercial, and cultural domains.  Indeed, cooperation in the security field has steadily deepened given both nations’ involvement in Afghanistan and East Timor.  There are now annual Australia-Canada Ministerial Bilateral Meetings, annual Chiefs of Defence Force meetings and senior Departmental official’s meetings.

This is a rosy picture but some real deficiencies are hidden in it. Both countries are highly pragmatic, with present cooperation largely driven by pressing security matters – as these wax and wane so does mutual collaboration. The urgent displaces the important. This makes Canadian-Australian cooperation episodic and idiosyncratic rather than long-term and enduring.  In some respects this is understandable.

Canada and Australia, with their distinct and distant geographic locations, have quite different strategic concerns and drivers.

Canada and Australia, with their distinct and distant geographic locations, have quite different strategic concerns and drivers.  Canada’s defence is ultimately underwritten by the US while generally Canada has seen Western Europe as its major defence focus.  For Australia, national defence is fundamentally an Australian responsibility with South East Asia of greatest defence concern.  To paraphrase the old Chinese adage, in defence matters Canada and Australia have historically had different beds and different dreams.

Across the next several decades, however, there may be a subtle shift. The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving away from the North Atlantic towards East Asia. Reflecting this, three of Canada’s top six export destinations are now in East Asia. Indeed, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping is Canada’s seventh largest trading partner. Unsurprisingly, the Trudeau government is now actively seeking a Free Trade Agreement with the largest economy in East Asia: China.

It’s here that difficulties arise. China is also the most important security concern in Asia.  In this, the Chinese Communist Party government deftly combines economic and security matters to advance its national interests. The Chinese government will not be reticent in observing that its economic ties with Canada – including any new free trade agreement – may be imperilled if Canada adopts a security stance Beijing disapproves of.  The Communist Party’s media outlets can, in fact, be counted on to be remarkably shrill and belligerent.  If Canada principally seeks economic gain, why then should this be risked by also trying to play in the security space?

Defence cooperation with Australia in the Asia-Pacific carries with it the risk of economic pain.

Defence cooperation with Australia in the Asia-Pacific carries with it the risk of economic pain.  Given its location in Asia, Australia has no choice but to respond to China’s security challenges while at the same time actively seeking greater Chinese economic engagement.  This is a difficult balance, and it is not yet clear Canada wishes to make life difficult for itself – particularly in a time when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) goalposts are shifting.

Some may counter that “the flag must follow trade.” The crucial commercial shipping and air links between Canada and its Asian trading partners should be protected from hostile interference by protective military force. In truth, however, many of these trading linkages are between Canada and China and, those that are not, could be routed away if needs be, as they were without any great inconvenience during the Cold War.

China’s security challenge is quite different to some reimagining of the Battle of the Atlantic.  As it rises, China wants to adjust the regional security order to better advance its national interests. The country is gradually establishing a widening sphere of influence where China’s central importance is recognized by others, regional nations defer to it on important issues, including security, and China has implicit veto power over unfavourable developments such as whom regional nations make alliances with and their foreign basing agreements.  China’s success in fragmenting the ASEAN response to the China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is seen as an indication of such regional Finlandisation.  Reflecting this, US Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command recently declared that: "I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia."

China is building its sphere of influence using a careful blend of diplomatic pressure, economic inducements, cultural interaction, military enlargement, territorial expansion, media exploitation, and soft power approaches.  Responding to this will similarly require a multifaceted, approach.  The realization of this partly underpinned Australia’s enthusiastic support of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).  China’s economic blandishments are considered best met using economic instruments.

A way to avoid Chinese hegemony is to improve the resilience of ASEAN states so they can better resist Chinese pressure, threats, and coercion. Building such resilience needs a regional dimension, given that China often seeks to win arguments using divide-and-conquer tactics that pick off states individually.

Australia has embraced regional defence engagement with a new vigour, even if this approach stretches its own defence resources. Such a remark will possibly resonate with Canadian defence planners, doers, and thinkers. Given such resource issues, Australia would doubtless welcome cooperating with Canada to improve the national resilience of ASEAN to broadly-based external pressure. Both nations could achieve more impact from their efforts by working collaboratively.

Canada’s involvement might include measures beyond security assistance, defence training, and military support.

Canada’s involvement might include measures beyond security assistance, defence training, and military support.  While arguably the case for TPP should be kept being made to the Trump administration, in its absence Canada might consider joining Asia’s somewhat larger Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.  Wrongly perceived at times as a Chinese initiative, this free trade pact actually emanates from ASEAN.

A focus on regional resilience can to some extent defuse the inevitable criticism from China of external powers interfering in matters that don’t concern them.  Building resilience is internally, not outwardly, directed. It’s not a new containment strategy or an alliance-crafting move. Resilience threatens no one.

Moreover, in noting earlier that China might well pressure Canada over security matters by threatening economic damage, helping improve resilience in ASEAN states does not necessarily need to be defence heavy.  Other aspects might be highlighted. An example might be helping local states police their Exclusive Economic Zones, especially those in the South China Sea where Chinese fishing and general civilian maritime activities are increasingly worrying. If Canada is reticent to join US Navy Freedom Of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea (as Australia is), being involved in fisheries protection might be a reasonable alternative.

Even so, this may be a big move for Canada to take.  At the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue meeting, Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan declared that: “the biggest contribution to peace and stability in Asia Pacific is open and transparent dialogue.” Helping improve regional resilience, even in a small way, is a noticeable step-up beyond this.  In considering such a move, it’s worth noting that making a real difference to regional resilience would require a long-term and enduring commitment to Asia-Pacific security.

Working together on regional resilience would elevate Canadian-Australian cooperation to a new level. To return to the Chinese saying, the two counties would still be in different beds but now share dreams.  Most importantly, however, such cooperation would noticeably help buttress Asia-Pacific security in a time of great change.

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia.