One of the best historians of Canada-Asia relations, David Webster, captured the general response to it well:
“Canada’s new Indo-Pacific strategy… marks a welcome return of common sense in place of the illusions that have dominated Canada’s approach to Asia for the past quarter-century.
At the same time, there are big gaps that show Canadian policymakers still have a lot of thinking to do.”
Certainly, some critics are more negative, others are more positive, and still more are waiting for further details and complementary policies, but when the eminently reasonable Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong’s initial response to the strategy is merely to suggest that he needs more time to digest it, it seems clear to me that the document is unlikely to result in any serious grief for the government at home.
Personally, I was struck by how explicitly the strategy was framed in terms of national interests.
“Interests” are mentioned 17 times across the document; “values” appear just 8 times. There is no touting of Canada’s allegedly “feminist” foreign policy. Instead, appropriate references are made to our more genuinely feminist international assistance policy.
In sum, this is a more serious document than some might have anticipated, significantly less focused on branding and marketing than has been typical of this government.
I suspect that the reason why is straightforward: the primary goal of the release of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy was to satisfy a long-standing American concern that Ottawa was not taking the challenge that China poses to a rules-based international order sufficiently seriously.
Indeed, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Jolie admitted as much at an event hosted by the Asia Pacific Foundation in October.
To quote her directly: “Canada was not always seen as a reliable partner, so that's why we decided to do this Indo-Pacific strategy.”
Given the Biden administration’s outspoken preference to work multilaterally, the Trudeau government’s hesitancy to declare its alignment with Washington’s global priorities (initially because of the detention of the Two Michaels) became all the more problematic.
Recall that China was the only country that US Ambassador to Canada David Cohen referred to specifically during his Senate confirmation hearing back in September 2021.
Once he arrived in Canada, Cohen told The Globe and Mail that Washington was “looking to Canada to help confront Beijing’s growing military, political and economic ambitions.”
“I think for both Canada and the United States, and you could argue for every democracy in the world, China is our greatest threat,” he said.
In that context, the strategy’s otherwise unusual promise to “deploy Canada’s first diplomatic position in Hawaii to lead engagement with local U.S. and international partners,” and the pledge to “hold the inaugural Canada–United States Strategic Dialogue on the Indo-Pacific in 2023” make a lot of sense.
And the ambassador’s official response, “Today, we welcome Canada’s announcement of its Indo-Pacific Strategy and look forward to continued engagement with Canada, one of the United States’s most important friends and allies, to advance our countries’ shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific region,” must have come as a great relief.
All of this is not meant to detract from the work of the staff at Global Affairs Canada, and Canadian Indo-Pacific experts writ large.
But it does mean that, inasmuch as Ottawa has promised to shift the focus of its diplomatic, defence, and commercial efforts westward, at its core, the foreign relationship that truly matters to Canadian security and prosperity remains to the south.
For a clear sense of America’s global priorities, take a look at the speech that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gave upon the release of the latest US National Security Strategy.
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