The Emperor Has No Clothes: Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

This past week has seen Canada’s Conference of Defence Associations Institute publish a letter signed by more than 60 former top security officials, including the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, two Deputy Prime Ministers, five former Liberal and five former Conservative Defence Ministers, and nine former Chiefs of Defence Staff, calling on the Trudeau government to take national security and defense more seriously and make it a government priority. Within days, a leaked document from the series of leaked Pentagon papers revealed that Prime Minister “Justin Trudeau (despite a unanimous motion in the House of Commons a year earlier in April 2022) has told NATO officials privately that Canada will never meet the alliance’s defense spending target (of 2 percent of gross domestic product) and that Canada’s ‘widespread’ military deficiencies are harming ties with security partners and allies.” In short, the ‘Emperor has no clothes’ and nowhere is this more apparent than in Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy released last year.

The Strategy

In late November 2022, the government released its much-heralded and long-awaited Indo-Pacific Strategy to great interest among Canadians. The strategy framework, set out Canada as a Pacific nation with broad interests throughout the increasingly important region. Those broad interests included national security, economic prosperity, respect for international law and human rights, democratic values, public health, protecting the environment, and promoting enhanced Canadian engagement in the region with partners to shape those interests. It is important to note that, much like Ukraine but on a bigger scale, one in five Canadians have family ties in Asia. A document, one of many by G-7 states noted that the dynamics of the region would shape the lives of Canadians for generations to come.

The strategy was based on realism concentrating on protecting Canadian interests and values as the starting point and noted that Canadian investment would reach almost $2.3 billion in the Indo-Pacific region over the next five years. The document outlined Canada’s Indo-Pacific national interest in one clean line: “Encompassing 40 economies, over four billion people, and $47.19 trillion in economic activity, it is the world’s fastest growing region and home to six of Canada’s top 13 trading partners.” Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy included five whole-of-government interconnected strategic objectives, including promoting peace and security, expanding trade and investment, connecting people, a sustainable green future, and Canada as a reliable engaged partner.

Devil in the Details

To advance Canada’s security interests, the government planned to spend $720.6 million, including $492.9 million to reinforce military and naval presence and participation in regional military exercises and $47.4 million to develop cyber security capacity in select regional allies. In support of expanding trade and investment, the Canadian government would invest $244.6 million, including $24.1 million to establish the Canadian Trade Gateway in Southeast Asia, $31.8 million to establish Canada’s first agriculture office in the region, and $13.5 million to expand natural resource ties, technology, and innovation. Canada’s strategy to invest in people included contributing $261.7 million, with $100 million in Feminist International Assistance Policy development and $74.6 million to enhance Canada’s visa processing capacity in New Delhi, Chandigarh, Islamabad, and Manila. In building a sustainable green future, Canada committed a total of $913.3 million in spending including $750 million for FinDev Canada to expand its operations into the Indo-Pacific, $84.3 million to help reinforce a healthy marine environment, and measures against illegal and unregulated fishing. As a reliable Pacific partner and to enhance its presence and influence in the region, Canada will invest $147 million including $100 million to expand capacity at Canada’s Indo-Pacific missions abroad and $24.5 million for a new office of the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada in the region.

The document was uncharacteristically blunt regarding the rise of an increasingly aggressive China. In the Indo-Pacific Strategy, China was described as “an increasingly disruptive global power” but too great to ignore because of its social and economic power. The document warned that the Canadian government needs to be “clear-eyed” about China’s objectives in the Indo-Pacific and the world at large. The Canadian framework further cautioned: “China’s rise, enabled by the same international rules and norms that it now increasingly disregards, has had an enormous impact on the Indo-Pacific, and it has ambitions to become the leading power in the region.” The strategy document also makes it clear that not only can we not ignore an aggressive China, but because of its economic clout, we must find ways to engage with Beijing and cooperate when it is in our interest. The strategy document went on underline the importance of maintaining pressure on the Kim Jong-un regime of North Korea by enforcement of the sanction regime. On the security front, this is where the strategy comes up short.

State of the Canadian Armed Forces

The past year has seen significant defense and security challenges for Canada and, by extension, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). From the Indo-Pacific Strategy to the upcoming Defence Policy Update, as well as announcements on NORAD modernization and the acquisition of a new generation of fighter jets in F-35 and tanker aircraft, Canada is posturing or positioning itself to be at the decision-making table.  But these first good steps are years away from being turned into real capabilities and the world can shift fast. Readiness is extremely difficult, especially in times of inflation, for effective military procurement, and for recruiting and retaining members of the CAF against the backdrop of full employment and internal cultural issues. Here is where the rubber meets the road.

Sadly, the Canadian Army is short 10,000 troops and the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Canadian Navy are also both critically short of personnel. The troop shortage is so critical, especially given current major deployments in Eastern Europe, that Chief of Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre recently ordered all non-essential activities to end, in order to concentrate on reconstituting the Canadian Forces and on bringing it to a higher state of readiness. The CAF is struggling with culture change and a recruiting and retention crisis, to meet the federal government’s commitment to NATO and Latvia for a brigade-sized formation by later this year. Lieutenant-General Joe Paul has said that the Army shrank by 1,200 soldiers last year and possibly another 800 this year, in a force already 8,000-10,000 soldiers short of manning levels. Moreover, plans to reconstitute the Canadian Army following Afghanistan were not followed through and the land force lacks basic military capabilities, such as a counter-drone capability, modern anti-tank weapons, and anti-aircraft defenses.

From a security point of view, the call for an increased Canadian presence in the Indo-Pacific faces similar challenges to Canada’s commitment to NATO Operation Forward Presence in Latvia in terms of lack of personnel and equipment. As 2023 unfolds, we have already begun to see the strain on CAF’s resource allocation. The strategy called for a forward presence of three Canadian frigates at a time when the Royal Canadian Navy is short 1,300 sailors and its ships are getting older, particularly with some frigates over 30 years of age and four Victoria-class some 40 years old, meaning more time is required for training stressed crews and for repairs and maintenance. The navy possesses 12 frigates and with normal training and maintenance can only sustain three abroad at best. It is hard pressed to maintain one forward deployed Victoria class submarine at one time. This past June, the HMCS Vancouver and HMCS Winnipeg were both deployed to the Indo-Pacific. Canada has a commitment of sustaining one frigate as part of the NATO Standing Naval Force Atlantic. The deployment of two frigates to the Pacific meant that Canada had to pull one ship from European waters for the first time since the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014.

We just witnessed this predicament when the United States shot down all four flying objects in North American airspace because Canada’s CF-18s did not have the capability or availability to do so. The 40-year-old CF-18’s first introduced in 1982 have been upgraded repeatedly but their electronic warfare suite has long been obsolete rendering them vulnerable in a modern combat environment. Military equipment can be second best on land and still win, in the air or at sea second best gets you dead. The CAF is a hollowed-out shell of its former self, and the Trudeau government has shown limited interest as did his predecessors in rebuilding a once proud military other than the steps outlined above. This lack of interest comes at the time of a shooting war on NATO’s doorstep in Ukraine and with a war pending in terms of Taiwan in the Western Pacific.

In conclusion, it is easy as part of a strategy to flow money to enhance trade and development and attempt to use it to enhance your diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region, but when push comes to shove, Canada has very little to preserve its national interest or that investment in treasure through peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. Soft power and hard power go hand in hand, sadly, Canada’s strategy to promote peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific has little to offer in terms of real military power. Canada through successive governments has rendered itself largely strategically irrelevant to its allies on a military basis in the region and perhaps this is why Canada has not been approached or offered to join the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus, the Quad of India, Australia, Japan, and the United States and was ignored by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in AUKUS. In the end analysis, Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is a communications strategy to hide weakness at home and abroad and the lack of a national commitment to international security in a region of vital economic interest.