Dr. James Boutilier on Indo-Pacific Security

Dr. James Boutilier

Not long ago Canada released its long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy—how does the composition of the Indo-Pacific Advisory Committee, particularly in terms of expertise and regional experience, influence our approach and effectiveness when it comes to engaging with the Indo-Pacific region?

At the heart of the matter is a question of credibility. When I wrote a recent critique of the Indo-Pacific strategy, I wrote that it was ambitious, it was aspirational, and it was 40 years late. Because, of course, the great period of Asian growth and dynamism was in the 80s, 90s, and in the first decade and a half of this century. Now we can see that the relationship between Canada and China has undergone profound change as a result of the Meng Wanzhou affair in 2018-2019, and of course the illegal incarceration of two of our Canadian nationals, Michael Kovrig, and Michael Spavor—a most tragic and lamentable episode.

We are very late coming to the table. What is it that we have to address? Well, the bottom line, I would suggest, is a profound credibility deficit in terms of Canada’s presence in the region. If you travel across the region, as I’ve had the good fortune of doing on many occasions, what you find is that your interlocutors are unfailingly polite and they’re interested in Canada’s involvement in the region, but what they say is, “Are you serious? You’re never here, you turn up at one meeting, and then you’re gone.”

In my professional role as an advisor to the Navy over the space of 24 years between 1996 and 2020, I advised constantly that what was critical was to have a continued presence in the region. One of the interesting features of the Indo-Pacific Strategy is not only a recommendation but a requirement that the Canadian Navy increase its naval presence in the region on an annual basis.

But the IPS, I would suggest, is a profoundly domestic document. It reflects the Liberal Party agenda. What we see is an emphasis on Indigenous links between the Indigenous community in Canada and Indigenous communities, for example, in Australia and New Zealand. What we see is gender empowerment, which of course resonates with a number of Liberal Party initiatives. So what I would suggest is that this plays as much to the Canadian audience as it does to the Asian audience. Now, the IPS is focused on Southeast Asia, and I think that’s probably a sensible area in which to focus because there are a series of middle-power states there that operate on a scale and have an interest in the issues that are at the forefront of Canada’s national agenda.

But I think that the funding available is inadequate. The area is vast, the deficit is great, and while there are some interesting initiatives, I think that the IPS is a well-meaning first step—but only a first step, and the really ‘hard yards,’ as Australians say, have yet to come. It’s a work in progress, but I think that for the moment the funding is inadequate, and the vision is still limited. We’ll see the degree to which the IPS objectives are achieved.

One of the things that deeply concerns me is the fact that if you were to look at something comparable in the Australian context, what you would see was bipartisan support from all parties involved in parliament in Canberra. This is not the case in Canada. So technically, the IPS could fall victim to a change of government in the next national election. If the Conservatives, for example, were to come into power they might very well argue that this is not one of their strategies for the region, and let the thing fall by the wayside. I very much hope that that is not the case.

What do you think it would take for our government—any government in power for that matter—to provide the attention and resources necessary to expand our engagements in this region? As you say, we have developed this policy, it’s a good first step, but there’s still much that needs to be done. What comes next?

Well, there’s an old political strategy, and that’s naming and shaming. We can see that strategy at work more recently, of course, with Canada’s defence policy and its contributions to Ukraine, and so forth. A number of American commentators have been remarkably candid and forthright in their critique of the inadequacy of Canadian defence. It may be that we need some commentators from the region to be less polite in their assessment of Canadian involvement in the region, and more forthright in arguing that it’s simply been hopelessly inadequate over many, many years.

The pie, that is to say, the complete arc of economic growth in the region has grown phenomenally over the past 40 years, but our share of the pie has remained either constant or has declined. I think probably only in one or two markets, have we in fact enhanced our overall position.

In my own assessment, there needs to be far more profound leadership. The issuance of a document like the IPS is a start. It was an interesting collection of individuals who contributed to the drafting of the IPS, in the sense that, if you look down the list you’ll see, of course, three regional experts who provided advice to the committee, but most of the members of the committee had no knowledge of the region that I could determine when I reviewed their individual resumes. They were either representatives of Indigenous interests or women’s empowerment interests—there were only one or two members out of ten or eleven in the main body of the advisory committee that had firsthand experience in the region.

So, what we see is a document that plays to the Liberal agenda in Ottawa and perhaps throughout the nation. But we might very well benefit from having a few foreign commentators draw attention to the failure of Canada over many decades to be a far more active player in the region. I think, broadly speaking, it’s a failure not only just in the Pacific, but if we were to look at the Arctic, for example, our performance has been threadbare in many cases—lots of rhetoric, but hardly any reality. We need, as a nation, to start again and to be far more forthright. It’s one thing for the Prime Minister to say that Canada is back, but with that sort of rhetoric, we need real, genuine, and muscular follow-through.

Increasingly, at the national level, what we’re witnessing is drift—a lack of real leadership, a lack of real vision, a lack of urgency, a lack of energy. And what we need to do is have a series of clear goals that are to be achieved. The Pacific is vast, it is complex, it is challenging. And curiously, it is a long way from Ottawa, in the sense that I always feel there’s a profoundly Columban worldview in Ottawa, that you go to the west coast of Canada and fall off the edge of the earth, that the links—institutional and personal and geographic—are with Europe and not with the Pacific. So, we need to try doubly hard, because all the evidence suggests that increasingly the world’s centre of activity will be in the Indo-Pacific region, and we have a lot of work to do.

In what ways does China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands, signed in April 2022, signify a significant shift in the geopolitical landscape of the Pacific region, and how does it evoke concerns among the US and its allies about China’s expanding military and strategic ambitions in the region, for instance, with the potential establishment of its first military base in the Pacific? How might these development influence the security calculus of other Pacific Island nations and potentially prompt responses from other regional powers to maintain their interest and counterbalance China’s influence?

Let’s go back 20 or 30 years. We need to focus on the fact that in the 1980s and ‘90s, the Chinese did something that they had never done before—that was to engage in the development of a blue-water naval capability. Never in the history of China had the Chinese developed a capacity to extend naval power around the world—that’s what they’ve done over the past 40 years, and they now have the world’s largest navy, numerically.

Secondly, it’s important to note that when President Xi came to power, he inaugurated the Belt and Road Initiative, which was an opportunity for the Chinese to extend their authority across Asia, across the Indian Ocean into the Pacific, and as far as Europe. If we look at what’s happening in Oceania, more specifically the Solomon Islands in the Southwest Pacific, what we see is that the Chinese have taken a page straight out of the Japanese playbook before 1942.

After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese expanded into Southeast Asia, and then down across the Pacific, towards the Solomon Islands, and eventually their objective was to reach Fiji. In this way, they would cut across the supply lines which would naturally run from the United States to Australia, which of course, has been the traditional spear-carrier for the United States in that region and in much of Asia over the decades.

What we can see is that the Chinese have taken the Belt and Road Initiative, not only developed it in the Indian Ocean—and in fact, right across the Arctic with the Northern Sea Route—but they’ve now developed a further thrust into Oceania. The Solomon Islands was a key target for the Chinese to develop a strategic position in that region. Their interest in the Islands caused a deep alarm in Washington, Wellington, and Canberra. What we can see is that those three nations have embarked on a major counteroffensive to block Chinese expansion and ambition in that part of the world.

So this is very much part of China’s strategy to develop lines of defence extending out beyond the Chinese coast, as far as they can, in order to hold U.S. naval power and the power of related navies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia, at arm’s length from the Chinese coast. It is in some ways inherently defensive, but of course, it has real offensive characteristics in terms of the other players.

This is why you can see that, in fact, the Americans have led the way in terms of opening a new embassy in Tonga, and they’ve embarked on conversations with other Pacific Island nations to alert them as to the dangers—as illustrated in Sri Lanka and elsewhere—of building relations with Beijing. We now have a standoff in that corner of the Pacific, but the Chinese move was part of a larger geostrategic plan to enhance China’s position in the region.

To what extent does the Pacific region serve as a testing ground for competing models of development and governance between China and the Western liberal democracies, and what are the potential ramifications for the future of the region’s political and economic landscape?

What we can see is that the Chinese are simultaneously triumphalist, in the sense that they see that the future lies, in their estimation, with China, and that the United States has entered a period of inexorable decline. At the same time, they entertain a deep inferiority complex, a deep sense of paranoia, that the world has arranged against them. They would argue that, in the post-Second World War period, the international order—the liberal capitalist order—which has benefited almost all of us around the world, is in fact a creation in which they had no part.

Of course, the history of China at the end of the Second World War, with the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communists, was deeply complex and uncertain. But what we can see is that the Chinese now are intent on creating a new world order, working principally with the Russians, but also with their allies, the so-called BRICS.

In the eyes of many analysts around the world, the democratic system to which we’ve all been acquainted over the years is, in some ways, in trouble. We can see the deep uncertainties in European politics—right-wing movements in Hungary, and increasingly in parts of Germany—and we can see that in the United States, the political landscape is particularly turbulent and uncertain. This gives a harp to the policymakers in Beijing, and they wish to demonstrate to the Global South, that in fact, the Chinese model works, and works very successfully. That’s true to some degree, but what we can see, of course, is that currently, in the post-COVID era, China is in a state of uncertainty. Its economy is in difficulty—we see mounting debt, problems with the real estate market, and demographic decline.

We can argue, and perhaps Western propaganda should be more aggressive in this way, that in fact, the Chinese model is far from perfect. I think that the Belt and Road experience in Africa has revealed to many African states that have been recipients of Chinese assistance, that in fact, this is a double-edged sword, and that a number of the states find themselves in a state of deep indebtedness to China and are having severe second thoughts about the Chinese model.

A recent Economist article had a title that said ‘Data on air bases suggest a Chinese invasion of Taiwan may not be imminent,’ with the subheading ‘But American aircraft near Taiwan are vulnerable to missile attack.’ How can the distribution of hardened aircraft shelters and military investments near potential conflict zones—as demonstrated by China’s recent developments, and coupled with the vulnerabilities of American aircraft—inform our understanding of the evolving risk of armed conflict over Taiwan and its potential implications for regional stability?

What we can see is that the Chinese have engaged in what I would call a ‘carborundum’ policy—that is to say, to wear down their opponents by relentlessly penetrating air and sea space around, in this case, Taiwan. This is a way of punishing the Taiwanese for their temerity in inviting someone like Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei so many months ago. There’s a deep vindictiveness that runs through Chinese foreign policy.

Slightly farther to the north of Taiwan, there is a cluster of rocky outcrops in the sea called the Senkaku by the Japanese, or the Diaoyu by the Chinese, and the Japanese control the Senkaku. What we see is a colossal effort on the part of the Chinese to wear down Japanese resolve by inserting hundreds of aircraft over the years into the airspace around the Senkaku, and similarly, patrolling constantly in the waters close to the Senkaku Island outcrops. We can see that, for both the Taiwanese and the Japanese, this has meant that they have had to muster their fighters constantly to engage in reconnaissance to see what the Chinese are up to. That’s one issue.

The second issue is that what we have is an increasingly crowded air and sea space. Americans have claimed that the Chinese have flown their aircraft dangerously close to American military aircraft in the airspace close to the Asian shore. The same thing is happening at sea—there are constant encounters, and one of the deep fears on the part of many analysts is that one of these encounters will result in an outright collision. Of course, we can go back to 2001, when a Chinese fighter pilot, in fact, flew his airplane into the body of an American reconnaissance aircraft, which was severely damaged and obliged to land on the Chinese island of Hainan, where the crew was kept for ten or eleven days, and the Chinese stripped the airplane of all its latest technical equipment. Eventually, the air crew was repatriated to the United States and the episode passed by.

With every passing day now, we can see that with transits of the straits, which are international waters between China and Taiwan, the Chinese complain bitterly that this is somehow an illegal action. More recently, the Chinese have tried to prevent the Philippines from restocking a naval vessel that is on a Philippine reef. This sort of activity is extremely provocative, in many cases illegal, and we can see that with every one of these episodes, there’s a real opportunity for a situation that will escalate into outright hostilities. We have to be particularly alarmed because of the increased levels and intensity of activity in East Asian waters.

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