Australia and Canada are ideal Indo-Pacific partners
Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy says the region plays a ‘critical role in shaping the country’s future over the next half century’. The well-resourced comprehensive strategy, published late last year, seeks to expand Canada’s cooperation with other countries in the region and follows four years of a “cool relationship with Beijing.” This offers great potential for Australia to be an important ally and partner.
Australia and Canada can now work together in key areas it outlines and it is timely to identify how they can best do this. Global Affairs Canada, the department that manages diplomatic relations, says the two nations enjoy strong and multifaceted bilateral relations, and regularly consult on international issues based on their policy convergence in areas such as defense and security, trade ($4.8 billion two-way), investment ($67.7 billion two-way), economic growth, illegal migration, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, and in social areas, including indigenous peoples, transport and regional affairs. Canada’s defense relationship with Australia is the largest in the Asia-Pacific.
Both nations felt China’s coercion on trade and arbitrary detention as 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 about the need to maintain trade with China while opening up new trade and investment opportunities.
Australia is now involved 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 defense strategic update, ministerial announcements and press releases all deal with the region. Important 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. Shortly after coming to power, Albanese announced a defense strategic review in 2022 to better understand where Defense should prioritize investment and ensure the Australian Defense Force is well positioned to meet the country’s security challenges to 2033 and beyond. . The review, which will be delivered early this year, can only help inform strategy and will not represent a comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy.
We have previously suggested that both countries would benefit from implementing detailed strategies to guide their relations with other nations and regional multilateral forums. This requires more than a strategy framework through ministerial speeches as with the then Canadian foreign minister’s 2020 speech which used to ‘challenge, compete, cooperate, co-exist’ to describe Canada’s relations with China. Keywords and labels do not answer strategic questions about sectors to be addressed, priority areas, how this approach will be carried out, with whom and what resources will be required.
Taglines do not help make strategic decisions or identify how other nations can most constructively engage. This is what the Canadian strategy helps facilitate with its five core objectives: promoting peace, resilience and security; expanding trade, investment and supply chain resilience; invest in and connect people; build a sustainable and green future; and to be an active and engaged partner in the Indo-Pacific. If well developed and implemented, these goals should help Canadian and Australian policy frameworks work together. Canada and Australia have had long-term defense and security engagements, but this does not mean that Canada has to be a full member of all regional defense cooperation. Australia is a member of the Quad and AUKUS, and Canada is not. But Ottawa can contribute ideas and resources to a more sustained effort to engage allies and reflect Canadian interests. Working with allies’ technology working groups, including those on artificial intelligence, biotechnology, advanced materials, photonics, quantum and ocean technology will help. Intensifying the level of cooperation around robust intelligence, defense and foreign policy programs will move Canada forward in these important areas.
A new, more coordinated 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 aligning itself more closely with them. But a broadening of partners can (and should) include connection 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 can be of great use to Pacific countries, especially those dealing with overfishing by Chinese vessels. In some areas, such as mitigating climate change and protecting global biodiversity, shared interests with China will provide new opportunities for positive engagement. For Australia and Canada, developments in the South China Sea and Taiwan remain primary security issues and improving 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 cooperation, the sharing of intelligence and expertise, and cooperation 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 grassroots initiatives with broader opportunities and help rebalance the most difficult relationships where possible.
But Australia and Canada cannot accept that the autocratic powers will change their pursuit of the international rules-based order to their liking, or that the US will not return to a hard-line ‘America first’ national security strategy should political circumstances change not. The two Commonwealth countries are ideally suited to work together on many initiatives in the region, but it would be inappropriate to gloss over the challenges ahead. Their strategies will need to be operationally clear and well equipped so that goals are achievable and politically savvy.