OPINION: Canada Must Develop a Coherent East Asia Maritime Strategy

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
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Deployments of Royal Canadian Navy ships to East Asia suggest a willingness to influence the region, but Canada must define a clear policy objective amid tension between the U.S. and China.

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Over the past several years Canada has begun conducting regular naval deployments throughout East Asia. But the regular dispatching of the Royal Canadian Navy does not constitute but rather begets the need for a regional strategy to guide and legitimize these missions — something successive governments have failed to do.

The current Trudeau administration mentioned the region only in passing in recent foreign and defense policy speeches and reviews. The most recent dispatching of Canadian ships to East Asia was explained by way of contributing to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region without any elucidation as to how these objectives were being achieved or what was causing peace and stability to be undermined in the first place.

The need to address such matters is not a call for Canada, which is a small player with a very modest expeditionary military capability, to embark on "grand strategizing". Rather, it is a call for developing a coherent policy for the region that establishes shared expectations and understandings with the United States and regional partners, especially with respect to the use of military power.

Regular naval operations in the numerous contested maritime spaces of East Asia raise a host of complex legal, political and strategic matters for Canada. The recent shadowing of Canadian warships by the Chinese Navy (a first in recent memory) is the latest rationale for Canada to start developing a clear policy response towards the major issue dividing China and the United States at sea: freedom of navigation for military vessels and aircraft, specifically in the form of U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs).

But prior to being in a position to make a meaningful determination about any possible contribution to FONOPs and before being compelled to make a decision, Canada must address three distinct but interrelated matters.

First, given its narrow focus on trade and economic engagement, Canada has largely failed to develop a comprehensive and coherent strategy for the use of its military power in East Asia. Canada does not possess an unambiguous position on the South China Sea disputes, which complicates understanding the purpose and rationales of employing military assets on a regular basis in the region.

Canada needs to better understand under what conditions it would support the United States militarily in East Asia — especially in the context of FONOPs. Unlike other missions such as NATO-led operations in the Mediterranean and Black Sea following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, no clear strategic, operational or legal frameworks exist regarding FONOPs in the South China Sea to inform Canadian military participation.

Coordinating with local partners such as Japan and South Korea is also critical if Canada is to create an independent regional policy that saves it from being perceived as a proxy or ‘little sheriff’ of the United States.

Second, Canada needs to assess how taking a firmer stance on the South China Sea might affect Chinese–Canadian relations. Canada’s participation in FONOPs would largely be directed against China, so such activities may unnecessarily antagonize relations with Beijing with unknown implications for trade and diplomacy.

Ottawa should not be deterred from acting here simply based on an expected negative reaction by China. But the absence of a Canadian position on the South China Sea opens the door for confusion and misunderstandings that could hamper the relationship unnecessarily. Such a decision would also likely force Ottawa to confront sensitivities about its contested maritime claims in the Arctic. China, which is becoming increasingly interested and engaged in the Arctic, is yet to develop an official view on the matter. But it may try to use its formation of a view as leverage over Canada to maintain a benign position in the South China Sea in exchange for China’s acquiescence to Ottawa’s position.

Finally, Canada needs clarity on some of the more nuanced and complicated legal matters framing the South China Sea disputes. Canada has never commented on the merits of U.S, military activities — specifically on missions in China’s (and others’) maritime spaces. Are FONOPs a peaceful use of the seas, especially with respect to ambiguous claims held by others such as China’s ill-defined Nine-Dash Line? Canadian legal views should be nailed down before faced with a decision on possibly participating in freedom of navigation patrols.

The use of military power is and will always be a small aspect of Canada’s international engagements. Its use must therefore be clearly articulated and directed towards achievable political and strategic objectives. Whether Ottawa decides to conduct FONOPs or not, Canada’s military presence and activities in East Asia must ultimately be in support of a peaceful transformation and power reconfiguration of the region, and not a dogged and ultimately futile determination to maintain the current status quo of unrivaled U.S. military primacy.

While the preferred option for Canada would be to maintain an ambiguous regional approach (which would allow for flexibility of response during incidents and crises while not unnecessarily antagonizing relations with China), if Canada is to commit regular naval deployments to some of the world’s most contested maritime spaces, it needs policy clarity.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

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