As a country bordering three of the world’s five major oceans, Canada naturally adopts a global outlook in its foreign and economic policies, but it has yet to incorporate recent changes in the trans-Pacific neighbourhood, from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific. It is time for Canada to reset its vision.
The Indo-Pacific was conceived by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a 2007 speech, where he described the idea as “a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity.” The geopolitical concept of deep interlinkage between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean has gained much currency in the past decade, with proponents such as Japan, the United States, Australia and India believing the littoral nations should avoid using force or coercion to resolve their disputes. They also favour regional connectivity projects as long as these are transparent, sustainable — both environmentally and financially — and respectful of national sovereignty.
The 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are well on their way to adopting the Indo-Pacific vision, under a determined diplomatic initiative launched by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. A recent visit to the region confirmed to me that even Indo-Pacific skeptics such as the Philippines and Cambodia are now inclined to be more responsive. Acceptance by Canada, an Indo-Pacific nation, will thus be in line with the changing times and should also improve the prospects of achieving its twin agendas of having free-trade agreements with both the ASEAN and India.
India has supported the intertwining of security and development challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific has won new adherents. At the Shangri-La Dialogue last June, he saw the Indo-Pacific as “a natural region” and insisted that India’s vision for it is “a positive one.” He also added that “India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or a club of limited members.” Once Ottawa shares this vision, it will serve as a new ballast for progress in Canada-India relations.
Canada, India and the ASEAN need to embark on a trilateral dialogue on what the Indo-Pacific stands for in terms of political, security, strategic and economic domains, and how a close convergence of policies can strengthen the security and prosperity of the region, currently mired in the strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China.
Happily, the first shot has already been fired. India and Canada held a substantive session of Track 1.5 dialogue (involving officials and non-officials) in Ottawa last October. It was piloted by the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., and Gateway House in Mumbai, India. The two think tanks are drawing up an ambitious agenda covering innovative issues such as cyber security, climate change, energy and trade in services. By situating future discussions within a framework of the region’s changing geopolitics that revolves around the Indo-Pacific, the two sides will begin to speak in the idiom of the 21stcentury, thus helping advance each other’s innovation agenda.
This will ensure that Canada draws greater attention from India’s policy and business community. It will promote Canada’s commercial interests as India is among the world’s fastest-growing economies and a consistently rising power. On the other hand, India, too, needs to take more interest in what Canada says and does, because the latter’s talent for innovation, technology and capital resources can accelerate the pace of India’s development if wisely deployed. In short, the two nations are well-advised to rise above the old colonial, Commonwealth, through-the-Europe mindset, updating and enriching it with the new Indo-Pacific dimension.
Aside from closer ties with India and the ASEAN, adhering to the Indo-Pacific vision will put Canada on the same page as the U.S., Australia and Japan in the Asian theatre. Japan, as a vital pillar of Canada’s Asia policy, will happily welcome a Canadian touch and such a move will undoubtedly help deepen cooperation between the two countries.
Inevitably, critics will pose the question: What impact will this have on Canada-China relations? Canada’s relations with China are already in a difficult spot, due to the arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd.’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. There seems little chance of concluding a free trade deal with China, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s utmost efforts. Caught in the middle of the U.S.-China trade conflict, Ottawa should acquire additional leverage in its dealings with Beijing by hinting that it will consider the Indo-Pacific as a workable proposition.
Canada can be confident that the Chinese, being sensitive to a majority view within the ASEAN, may gradually reduce their resistance to the idea. As the Southeast Asian nations move towards endorsing an Indonesian proposal of accepting the term “Indo-Pacific” by year-end, Beijing may have no option but to follow suit.
There are also important economic considerations, especially with the ASEAN, that merit a careful look. Canada scored a major win by joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an advanced trade agreement linking 11 countries, which excludes the U.S., but includes four ASEAN members: Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. CPTPP went into force last December and it should help bring Canada closer to the ASEAN.
At present, the ASEAN is engaged in negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that includes China and India, but not Canada. Whether this agreement will eventually become a reality depends largely on India, which is seeking flexibility from China and the ASEAN in accepting its minimum requirements to reduce non-tariff barriers and facilitate services exports. Canada can promote its own interests by gradually becoming a significant component of the Indo-Pacific through a closer relationship with the ASEAN.
Both India and Canada are facing parliamentary elections this year. Their officials and diplomats are beginning to prepare policy briefs for the next governments. The Indo-Pacific should be seeping into their consciousness.
Rajiv Bhatia is distinguished fellow, Gateway House; a former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar and several other countries; and a published author. He also served as Consul General in Toronto.
(The article first appeared in Financial Post, Canada, 10 April 2019.)