Q: How do American, Australian, and Japanese perspectives on a Free and Open Indo Pacific Strategy differ? Would it make sense for Canada to align with one of these frameworks?
A: FOIP has been discussed a lot in the past few years, largely because of its recent adoption by the U.S, particularly the Trump administration. The framing of a U.S regional approach termed as “Indo-Pacific” really didn’t exist 6-7 years ago. That isn’t to say that some of their interests and positions have changed. For the U.S, FOIP is a continuation of Obama’s initial pivot and rebalance. What is inside the box hasn’t changed, but the framing has changed. The Indo-Pacific as a geostrategic concept didn’t really originate from the U.S. and I think the notion of whether or not Canada should adopt a FOIP approach is influenced by this idea that it is a hard-edged, Trumpian concept. This sentiment is compounded by the fact that the Trump administration has a very adversarial relationship in its strategic competition with China. So, rather than getting stuck in the middle [Canada] should take a different approach.
I think this is one narrative that is often espoused, but I push back on it, because this concept originated intellectually with Japan, India, and Australia. There are concerns that the U.S Indo-Pacific strategy is too defence and security focused. Japanese, Australian, and Indian approaches are focused more on the economic leg. To be sure, Japan’s FOIP vision hasn’t deemphasized the security aspect, but it doesn’t have a QUAD-first sentiment. That isn’t to say its not important and that maritime security is not important to these parties, but I think Japan is focusing more and more on free and open infrastructure, trade, and economic security issues. These are becoming crucial to FOIP. I think Canada shares those values and interests. When reviewing the various FOIP strategies, I think our biggest takeaway is that it’s not all about the U.S. The U.S is a crucial and powerful player, but the origins of these discussions have come from the region and will likely remain in the region.
A: What benefits are there for Canada in developing an Indo-Pacific strategy and what should our objectives in the region consist of?
Q: Even before the introduction of Indo-Pacific language, Canada had struggled to articulate a strategy towards Asia for several reasons. One reason has been competing priorities. We’re a Transatlantic and Pacific nation located in the Americas, giving us a wide variety of geographic priorities. Transatlantic ties have been consistent throughout several administrations, but I think there’s been hesitancy to acknowledge whether we have the resources required to be a player in Asia and the Indo-Pacific. The second big factor, which has arisen alongside China’s great economic emergence is that policy makers in Ottawa have predominantly come to associate the region with China. Economic opportunity has typically been the lens through which we view the region and China. I think that bubble has been bursting gradually.
Those who see the most recent challenges in our relationship with China through the lens of the two Michaels and 5G are missing the point. Those are important developments in our contemporary relationship with China, but the structural challenges that Canada and other countries face from China have been there for a long time. We’ve been downplaying those challenges for a while, because of the perceived economic benefits. It has been an impediment for us building a strategy—how will it be perceived in Beijing? It might have been possible 10-15 years ago for Canadian officials and diplomats to go to Tokyo, Seoul, Manilla, and Hanoi to talk trade agreements, investment, and building Canadian commercial opportunities there. That approach is no longer tenable. The security issues in this region are palpable, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about trade. We’re a TPP-11 member so we should aggressively pursue economic opportunities in the region, but for us to look at Asia as an economic opportunity, and not attach ourselves to the security and geostrategic issues won’t work anymore. We need a full package when developing a strategy.
We must look at multiple methods of engagement. Traditionally, Canada sees itself as a multilateralist power that wants to work through multilateral bodies. The challenge in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific is that there aren’t many such bodies. Canada is a founder of APEC, a dialogue partner at the ASEAN Regional Forum, and a founding member of the ADB, but these entities don’t have the same effectiveness as Transatlantic organizations. The current multilateral architecture is good but has proven ineffective in dealing with a range of different disputes including the South China Sea. I think this requires Canada to be a bit more ambitious and a bit more entrepreneurial in the way that it approaches these issues. We should invest and prioritize our role multilateral role, but also look minilaterally with like-minded states, such as Japan and ASEAN.
Q: How does the “Freedom and Openness” framework of the proponent states differ from the “Inclusion and Stability” framework of ASEAN, Indonesia, France, and Germany? What alliance or framework has the best prospects for addressing Chinese expansion in the region?
A: A lot of countries are coming out with approaches to this. The freedom and openness element is not, at least from the title perspective, adopted by all the other states outside the U.S, Japan, to some extent India, and Australia. In many ways, I think the U.S has hijacked the language, with their direct attacks on the CCP, and what they’ve expressed as freedom and openness. While other states are absolutely concerned about China, I don’t think it’s the same approach they are taking.
Japan, Australia, India, and Europe conceive freedom and openness as discussing sea lines of communication, open infrastructure development, and free and open investment in the digital space as well. Democracy is an important unifier, but this idea of taking on the CCP tooth and nail—I’m not sure that’s an element of free and openness that is shared by all proponent states. The Trump administration’s conception is not the only one and people need to remember that. There are many useful parts of various FOIP strategies that need not be confused with the U.S approach.
When discussing the nomenclature of adopting an Indo-Pacific approach, it need not be mutually exclusive. This is an aspirational, high-level signal to the region of our seriousness and is meant to be used as a playbook. In many ways, this is public diplomacy branding—something Canadian policy officials can have by their arm when they are in that region. I think that’s a crucial way to look at this.
What will America’s approach to the Indo-Pacific look like under Biden? What does the RCEP mean for Canada and the U.S? Should the TPP be expanded?
We’re starting to see a little bit of a change already under [President-Elect Biden]. There have been more references to a “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” now in a lot of the readouts from the Biden transition team. Each administration wants to put a new framing on the way they approach this region. I don’t see any large structural changes happening in the way the Biden administration will approach the Indo-Pacific. A lot of pre-existing trends will continue and some, like the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits, the East China Sea with Japan, and the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea, have gotten worse. We can predict the trajectory of the Biden administration by looking at his Cabinet. Incoming Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan will likely pursue an alliance-first effort in the region.
This is a very significant change from the Trump administration. Some criticized Obama, citing his “soft” foreign policy and praised Trump for his tougher approach to China, but alliances have been a gaping hole for this administration. Trump shook down South Korea and Japan and tried to confront China, while also confronting allies at the same time. This wasn’t very effective. Biden will look to cooperate with allies in the region. Issues with China won’t change all that much structurally. I do think the articulation will change though. Going forward I expect much more traditional U.S diplomacy, quiet and dialogue-driven. The structure of competition between the U.S and China will not change though.
I think RCEP is an important agreement. It doesn’t include Canada or the U.S but does include China and a range of different players who are also a part of TPP, which is very significant. It is an interesting signal. For Canada, I’m not sure RCEP makes a significant impact as we’re already a member of TPP. There are multiple levels of trade agreements in this region now. Two massive multilateral ones, many bilateral ones, and sub-minilateral ones. If we think we can just stop at the TPP I think we would be mistaken. The competition for trade and investment in this region is significant and we have to think about how to add layers onto our current status. We could look at more bilateral deals and more investment deals with countries in ASEAN.
RCEP is more impactful for the U.S because there are now two mega-deals in the region without American involvement. Now that the U.S has withdrawn from the TPP and another deal has happened involving China, I think there’s a lot of concern from states in the region that the U.S approach is now fully dominated on security issues. They’ve abdicated on many ways on the trade side, so I think there will be significant pressure from many states in the region. I think Canada may lobby a little bit for the U.S to return to the TPP, but with all the other issues Biden faces in January, it seems risky.
For Canada, the idea that an Indo-pacific strategy is a punitive measure against China because they took the two Michaels or because of their assertive action in the region is the wrong way to think about [this]. Canada should develop an Indo-Pacific strategy because it’s in Canada’s interest to do so. Many states outside China are likeminded. If China is willing to play by the rules of the international order and its institutions, then China is welcome there too. The idea that this is a club of democracies gaining up on China is the wrong way to look at this. Canada sees China as a part of the Indo-Pacific. China will need to follow certain sets of norms, values, and rules to foster those partnerships.
Jonathan is an international affairs professional with expertise on security, defense and intelligence issues in Northeast Asia. Currently, he is a senior fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) based in Tokyo, Japan. Miller is also director and senior fellow of the Indo-Pacific program at the Ottawa-based Macdonald Laurier Institute, a Distinguished Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada, and Senior Fellow on East Asia for the Tokyo-based Asian Forum Japan and the New York-based EastWest Institute. Additionally, he is the Director and co-founder of the Ottawa-based Council on International Policy.