Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Canada’s Indo-Pacific pivot

Canada has long looked across the Atlantic but the pull of the Pacific flank is growing stronger.

HMCS Ottawa during drills in the Pacific ocean (Photo: US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
HMCS Ottawa during drills in the Pacific ocean (Photo: US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
Published 23 Sep 2019   Follow @grantwyeth

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, ahead of an election next month, is seeking to fend off an immediate and growing scandal around past episodes of wearing “brownface”. But whatever Trudeau’s fate at the polls, his term in office has come as Canada wrestles with longer-term shifts in global trends which see the country paying far greater attention to Asia and the Pacific than keeping traditional focus on the Atlantic.

This was clearly demonstrated a fortnight ago when HMCS Ottawa, a frigate in the Canadian Navy, was moving from its North Korean sanctions-monitoring operations in Northeast Asia towards a port call in Thailand. The route the vessel took passed through the Taiwan Strait. While naval vessels are permitted to take this passage under international law, Beijing tends to see such manoeuvres as a provocation to its claims over Taiwan. Navies that sail through the strait are fully aware of this issue, and factor it into their calculations.

It was the second time in three months that the HMCS Ottawa had transited through the Taiwan Strait, and given the current diplomatic tensions between Canada and China, the use of this maritime route carries some additional weight; a demonstration from Canada that it will not be cowed by Beijing’s use of hostage diplomacy and the embargos on certain Canadian agricultural products. There has been noticeable increased Canadian presence in the Indo-Pacific in the past few months. Alongside the HMCS Ottawa, in July the HMCS Regina made a port visit to Vietnam, alongside conducting joint exercises with Japan in the South China Sea.

Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has pledged more spending on the military (Photo: Ministry of Defense Ukraine/Flickr) 

While Canada’s official motto Mari usque ad Mare – From Sea to Sea – may have given the impression of a country that was equally engaged on both the Atlantic and Pacific flanks (conspicuously overlooking its increasingly contested northern waters), this hasn’t been the reality. Throughout its history, Canada’s diplomatic, military, cultural, and economic focus has been squarely focused on the North Atlantic.

Until now, this has made sense. As a country created out of two European colonial endeavours, and sharing a long border with the world’s most powerful country, Canada was prudent to keep by the holy trinity of Washington, London, and Paris. Given that over half the country’s population lives along the watershed of the St Lawrence River, which flows out into the Atlantic, Canada could be forgiven for having a world view that followed a similar stream.

Yet this is beginning to shift. The world’s centre of gravity has moved from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, and Canada is beginning to realign itself to reflect this reality. However, the impetus for this shift in outlook has come less from the calculations of the country’s foreign service, and more from a demographic movement, the economics and culture this drives, and how party politics is responding to it.

Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau is the centre of political controversy while broader trends strategic continue (Photo: Collision Conf/Flickr)

As Canada heads into an election campaign, the unique position of the Conservative Party best illustrates this phenomenon. The Conservatives were formed in 2003 as a takeover of an old centre-right party by an advocacy group for the country’s western provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba). This makes the party effectively a regional party pretending to be a national party (it currently holds no seats in the four Atlantic provinces).

While Ottawa’s geopolitical strategy will always be dominated by the United States, its shifting internal make-up is showing signs of rebalancing its coastal equations.

The party’s political project is to shift the country’s own centre of gravity westward. In terms of electoral maths, its only path to victory is being able to convince enough of the sprawling greater Toronto region that their interests are tied to the resource-extracting provinces to the west. Or to put it another way, shift populous Ontario from an Atlantic-facing province into a Pacific-facing one.

Former Conservative leader Stephen Harper was able to make this strategy work for three terms (although two in minority) primarily because of the herculean efforts of his immigration minister, Jason Kenney, to bring the large numbers of Asian voters who have settled in Toronto’s suburbs into the party’s fold (Kenney is now Alberta’s premier). The party was able to develop an understanding of the complex instincts of these voters; that they had come to Canada seeking opportunity, but that opportunity also remained in Asia.

While Ontario came flooding back to the Liberals in 2015, there was a lesson learned for Canada’s natural governing party: that the changing face of the country was also facing west, and the Liberals needed to adjust to this reality. This is especially important as the party favours a much larger country – with a current annual immigration intake of 330,000 ­­– and this intake is dominated by people from India, the Philippines, and China, whose concerns will be transnational.

Canada’s then prime minister Stephen Harper signs the visitor’s book during a 2011 trip to South Korea (Photo: Republic of Korea/Flickr)

Ontario still accepts the largest portion of immigrants, but its percentage of the intake is shrinking, while the percentages of Alberta and British Columbia are rising. The country’s internal migration is also favouring these two provinces as it follows their Pacific-facing economic opportunity. Alberta’s economy is now only slightly smaller than Quebec’s, but with 4 million fewer people. Vancouver has become Canada’s largest port, and it is also the most Asian city outside of Asia. 

While Ottawa’s geopolitical strategy will always be dominated by the United States, its shifting internal make-up is showing signs of rebalancing its coastal equations. Initially shaky in its approach to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Ottawa has become an enthusiastic participant, hoping it can provide some protection to global trading norms, as well as demonstrate Canada’s keen commitment to multilateralism (redubbed “Maplelateralism” at February’s Munich Security Conference).

Canada’s recent regional naval activity seems to indicate a willingness to enhance its regional security engagements to reflect its increasing Indo-Pacific interests. While the country famously underspends on defence (knowing that the U.S would consider a threat on Canada to be a threat on itself), there are signs that this is also changing with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan – himself a prominent symbol of Canada’s burgeoning Indo-Pacific identity – announcing a 0.2% of GDP increase in defence spending in 2017.

For Australia, an increased Canadian presence in the region should be considered a great positive. Given their common heritage, aligned world view, and similarly growing Asian influence on their societies, it is surprising that the two countries do not have a more engaging relationship. It would be prudent for Australia to recognise Canada’s shifting geographic balance and do more to encourage its northern Pacific cousin towards an Indo-Pacific future.

You may also be interested in