Breaking the Silence: Why Canada needs to speak out on the South China Sea – Part 2

CDA Institute guest contributor Dave Beitelman, a PhD candidate at Dalhousie University, comments on why Canada should take a stronger position on China’s claims in the South China Sea. This is Part 2 of a two-​part series.

As part of its existing approach to the Asia-​Pacific, Canada has long been a key participant in the US-​led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises held biennially off the coast of Hawaii. Canada contributes significant resources (personnel and matériel) to the exercises, and frequently assumes a leadership position. And, Canada has pursued membership to regional institutions with at least a partial security-​focused mandate, which I noted earlier in Part 1. Why participate in multilateral exercises preparing for a range of security contingencies with militaries from across the Asia-​Pacific, or pursue membership in regional institutions if the country has no substantial security interests in the region?

As for its ability to influence behavior, Canada has as much ability to influence China’s behavior as it does Russia’s. By joining the chorus of states speaking out against China’s excessive territorial claims, Canada helps rob China of the legitimacy it so desperately seeks. Staying silent, conversely, is tantamount to tacitly accepting China’s actions and claims. Beijing has said some 60 countries support its stance that the PCA has no jurisdiction over the territorial disputes at issue; by failing to come out and firmly denounce China’s claims, Canada might as well consider itself country 61. If Canada is the responsible and moral defender of global stability Ottawa would have us believe, it must speak up and speak out.

The argument that it is better for Canada to sit on the sidelines so as not to ruffle the feathers of its second largest trading partner is equally faulty. Ottawa has had no problem speaking out against China’s human rights issues, something which roils Beijing as an intrusion into its domestic politics. More the point, Canada has been able to criticize China’s human rights record with no discernible impact on bilateral trade relations. And this is the lesson that seems to be lost on Ottawa.

The tension between fearing China’s regional ambitions on the one hand, and its economic importance on the other, is one which nearly every state in the Asia-​Pacific region feels. Yet, many of them, including South Korea, Japan, and Australia – all important security partners or allies of Canada – have managed to push back against China’s intransigence while maintaining, or even expanding, economic ties. The most China could do is continue to protest against ‘foreign’ interference on regional issues. If China has a right to be an observer on the Arctic Council, Canada surely has a right to be involved in security issues in the Asia-​Pacific. The aggressive foreign policy of any state, be it Chinese or Russian, is a matter of common interest, as is the creation and adherence to the rules of the global commons – a point which Canadian engagement in the Asia-​Pacific region would reinforce.

Canada’s current policy of silence highlights its clear lack of a well thought-​out regional strategy, both for improving its economic and security ties with emerging markets in the region, and for responding to China’s rise in particular. China is right to want changes to the regional and global order which reflect its rising power and increasingly diverse global interests. These changes, however, must be made multilaterally if conflict is to be avoided. The unilateral imposition of changes to the status quo, whether historically justified or not, puts everyone at risk. It is a challenge to the rules-​based order which has existed since the end of World War II, and to the values that go with it – including human rights.

Recent history is replete with examples of what happens when such challenges go unanswered. If China is able to do in the South China Sea what Russia has been able to do in Eastern Europe, the proverbial barbarians will soon be at the gates. Many of China’s neighbours who have raised their defence budgets and sought closer ties with the US seem to understand this all too well. When it comes to Russia’s challenges to Eastern Europe, or radical Islamic terrorism in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, Canada also recognizes the dangers of unchecked aggression. Canada derives its security and prosperity from the stability of the rules-​based order that is currently being challenged. It is time for Canada to be the responsible global partner it claims to be and support its allies and partners in the Asia-​Pacific by pushing back against China’s excessive claims in the region, and advocating for a rules-​based approach to managing relations and resolving conflicts.

While it cannot effectively engage the region materially, due to an underserved Armed Forces (and Navy, in particular), Canada can do far more than it has. Defence diplomacy offers a wide-​range of options for enhancing partnerships with key states in the region, including China. Given the maritime nature of the region, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is the most appropriate service branch for leading Canadian defence engagement. However, as the RCN is undergoing a major revitalization, Canada will have to get creative.

Thankfully, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have many tools at their disposal, and skills appreciated by its partners. With the country’s history of helping regional states respond to natural disasters, elements from the CAF Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) can offer their expertise in emergency response and management, while simultaneously improving interoperability and the efficiency of future deployments. Elements of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) can help regional allies and partners improve their maritime security capabilities, counter-​terrorist response readiness, and other vital mission sets. These are relatively low-​cost, and sustainable, means of allowing Canada to consistently support its allies and partners and defend the stability of the region – all of which are in Canada’s interests.

Such activities would also go a long way in supporting Canada’s economic and institutional ambitions, giving Ottawa something to offer in exchange for support of its membership to the East Asia Summit (EAS) or ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-​Plus). In the long-​term, however, Canada should invest in the resources required to adequately participate as a member of the international community. This means being able to contribute ships for joint patrols of sea lanes, strategic lift capabilities to move people and resources around the globe, and the resources required to regularly participate in a variety of regional military exercises.

Holding on to the pretense of neutrality on the territorial issues in the South China Sea, and the Asia-​Pacific region more generally, does nothing to advance Canada’s interests. It merely reinforces the impression that Canada has no real strategy for engagement, leading to contradictory policies. Ottawa participates in the largest naval exercise in the world (RIMPAC) and seeks membership to important economic and security institutions in the region, yet some argue Canada has no ‘real’ interests at stake here. Others argue that speaking out risks drawing the ire of an important trade partner, even though Canada has consistently chastised the same partner for its domestic human rights record (with no perceivable ill effect).

If Canada wants to shed its reputation as a fly-​by-​night country in the Asia-​Pacific region, it is high time Ottawa adopted a consistent approach to global engagement. Canada needs to develop a comprehensive plan for dealing with China’s rise – especially if it wants a seat at the table in shaping the regional economic and security architecture. This is why the on-​going defence policy review process is so important, and why it should happen more often than every ten-​to-​twenty years or so. Soon, the PAC will announce its judgment, with far reaching consequences for the Asia-​Pacific region. It is a perfect opportunity for Canada to break its silence and support its own interests, as well as those of its partners and allies in the region, by speaking out in defence of international law and a rules-​based order in the Asia-​Pacific.

David A. Beitelman is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Dalhousie University and a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, where he served as Deputy Director from 2013–14.

Share the article :

Do you want to respond to this piece?

Submit and article. Find out how, here:


In order to personalize your user experience, CDA Institute uses strictly necessary cookies and similar technologies to operate this site. See details here.