By Adam P. Macdonald

The past few years have seen a visible augmentation of Canadian military activities in the Indo-Pacific region and an explicit commitment within the Government of Canada’s new defence policy to become a reliable security partner there.[i] The most visible expression of these renewed efforts is the regularized deployments of naval vessels to establish a near continuous in-theatre presence for the foreseeable future.[ii] Current missions are largely guided by a regional engagement approach, most visibly in the form of maritime diplomacy, designed to establish and further relations with traditional allies, new partners and major emerging powers while avoiding comment on or operating near disputed areas.

In an era of renewed major power competition, the maintenance of this approach can be questioned given the susceptibility of the Indo-Pacific region becoming a more contested space, particularly between China and the United States (US). Considering regional power reconfigurations, and their importance within the wider international landscape, does Canada need to rethink its military approach there? Calls for a grand strategy are ill-advised given Canada’s middle power disposition which would be more restrictive than enabling,[iii] but this does not discredit the need to think strategically- tying together the employment of military power towards supporting defined political objectives via a coherent and articulated approach– to ensure Canada’s ships are not simply ‘sailing around’. This paper will assess three broad-based Courses of Actions (COAs) for guiding future military activities – Absence, Overt Balancing and Regional Engagement. COAs are not a detailed cataloguing all possible mission sets, but rather the rationale which connects these operations within an overarching framework designed to support a specific geopolitical state. Given the strategic nature of the region, Canadian national interests, and available military capabilities, Ottawa should retain its regional engagement approach but with important modifications. Canada’s military and political activities within the Indo-Pacific region, also, must increasingly taken into consideration their impacts on and implications for other regions, specifically the Arctic which is an emerging maritime region with growing Asian interest and involvement.




This current period of rebirth in Canadian-East Asian defence and military relations, some warn, may simply be part of a familiar pattern of boom and bust engagements with the region given growing demands in more traditional area of focus in North America and the Euro-Atlantic.[iv] These include an upsurge in Canadian military contributions to NATO missions within Europe to deter a resurgent Russia; concerns about the required security architecture and forces to deal with an increasingly accessible Arctic region; and the daily grind of dealing with a mercurial Trump Administration.  Amongst these competing priorities, determination of whether and why Canada should become an ‘all-weather friend’ of the Indo-Pacific region (and if so how to allocate scarce resources in a suitable and sustainable way) is a prudent and increasingly important consideration in defence and foreign policy planning.[v]

It is a simplification to reduce the strategic complexity of the Indo-Pacific region to solely being a function of US-China great power competition, but it is accurate to interpret this rivalry as influencing all other regional dynamics. This rivalry has not manifested into a bipolar landscape defined by antagonistic blocs of subordinate states aligned exclusively to one great power. Instead, the region is defined by increasing economic relations with China by neighbouring states who nonetheless are maintaining, and in some cases augmenting, security relations with the US as the traditional regional leader. American military primacy, however, is gradually eroding as China builds and employs a more capable and effective military meant to challenge the resolve of Washington’s security commitments to regional allies. Despite concerns about American withdrawal, the Trump Administration has by and large retained America’s presence and activities in the Indo-Pacific region but with a growing transactional mindset of having allies ‘pay’ for American security.[vi] Concurrently, tensions with Beijing continue to rise, including labelling China (along with Russia) a revisionist power attempting to construct an illiberal order.[vii]

Photo: Corporal Stuart Evans, BORDEN Imaging Services

Amongst these tensions the security architecture of the region is undergoing profound changes.  This is not, however, primarily defined by re-alignments to/away from the US or China, but rather increasing linkages between Asian states themselves.[viii] The hub-and-spoke US bilateral alliance system remains in tact, but augmenting defence and security relations between the spokes (such as Australia, Japan, South Korea) are creating a spider’s web reconfiguration in the security architecture which is in many ways designed to deter and limit any Chinese hegemonic aspirations, but not in an overtly styled manner as per NATO against Russia in Europe. This is due to a number of factors. First, currently China is not seen as a revolutionary power determined to overthrow the regional and international system at all costs. Second, China resides within a tough geopolitical neighbourhood populated by several large states (including many that are nuclear-armed) making hegemonic aspirations difficult materially and also ideologically given suspicion of their ultimate motives and lack of soft power appeal. Third, to ensure China-US great power rivalry does not boil over by not exclusively aligning with or encouraging more aggressive moves by Washington which threaten to undermine regional trade and political relations in which China plays an indispensable role in. And, finally, in order to prepare for the possible retrenchment and abdication of a leading role in the region by the US in the future.[ix] 


The Indo-Pacific region is of great importance to the three lines of defence engagement for Canada as outlined in Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE): Collective Defence (alliance with US, close defence partners in region, commitments to UN Command in Korea); maintenance of a rules-based order (growing importance of region in the international system with regional states becoming major international actors affecting global  political, economic and military networks and processes); and ensuring global stability (specifically the trajectory of US-China strategic rivalry).[x] Canada’s official perception of the future trajectory of the Indo-Pacific region and its relation to the wider global context is not clear, but it is a fair assumption that Canada does not support either 1) re-establishment of overwhelming American military primacy in the region as this is ultimately futile; or 2) treating China like the USSR in the Cold War in trying to stunt and contain its rise and growing global importance across the board as unnecessarily antagonistic . Instead, the motivation is to ensure the region continues to evolve peacefully, remains open to rest of the world, and does not become dominated by a hegemon or succumb to debilitating strategic rivalry.




There exists little in the way of official explanation underpinning Canada’s augmenting military activities and relations in the Indo-Pacific region. In bridging the gap between the strategic interests Canada has in the region with the ability to deploy its limited military power there, three COAs are introduced and analyzed to determine which is the best fit connecting the two. Such an exercise, however, rests heavily on assessments of the strategic environment, its major factors and forces and the trajectories of these moving forward, primary among these the relationship between the US, China and middle-smaller sized regional powers. 




This COA asserts not a complete withdrawal or avoidance from the region, but rather a conscious decision not to become further involved as a defence priority. Not committing to the region would alleviate the strain of fulfilling simultaneous deployments elsewhere, specifically in Europe with NATO facing a resurgent and belligerent Russia. Here, extensive Canadian military involvement is in support of ensuring the resolve, unity and coherence of NATO which is a critical defence interest. Uncertainties, as well, around greater military commitments in the Arctic as it becomes more accessible and the possibility of the Trump Administration demanding a more equitable Canadian contribution to continental defence may also pull more forces back towards a North American orientation.

It can be argued that these theatres are not just more important to Canadian security interests, but ones where Canada plays a vital role given their long-standing presence there and deep inclusion and involvement within their security architectures. This is not the reality in the Indo-Pacific region, where Canada remains a peripheral player. Avoidance of the region, also, would ensure military assets are not caught up in any of the ongoing disputes, specifically over Taiwan and in the East and South China Seas. These are matters Canada does not have well-defined positions on what their response would be if hostilities broke out. Furthermore, absence would avoid being entangled within strategic tensions between the US and China, with Canada sitting uncomfortably between trying to appease its military ally and continental partner while not alienating an emerging global power and one of most important countries in their trade diversification strategy, even amidst the ongoing degradation in relations. In maintaining their defence relationship with the US, however, Canada could strike a deal to cover off in other regions, such as the Arctic, allowing more American assets to be deployed to the Indo-Pacific region.




Canada should not only be more engaged in the region, but actively part of a coalition of like-minded states in overtly balancing against China. Given concerns about Chinese revisionism, Canada would look to integrate their deployed forces within allied contexts which are designed to deter Beijing from unilaterally altering the status-quo. Characteristics of this COA would include: sailing in allied task groups in contested waters as a show of force; deployment of forces to partner states (similar to stationing of Canadian forces in allied European states) and/or becoming part of American units, such as the Seventh Fleet based in Japan; and increasing research and development and possibly arms deals to Asian states, specifically in the areas of Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) weaponry to inhibit the emergence of Chinese sea or air control over the region. Such an approach, also, may include the establishment of a ‘NATO for Asia,’ an alliance of like-minded states which is not solely or explicitly anti-China but heavily motivated towards ensuring the maintenance of American leadership in the region. Such an approach would seriously strain Canada-China relations. In an era of major power competition, however, Canada may have to align more closely with the US in order to not alienate its continental neighbour, major trade partner and predominant security ally and confront the only emerging power, governed by an authoritarian regime, with the ability to challenge for not just regional but global leadership at the expense of the West in a post-unipolar world.


Photo: Corporal Stuart Evans, BORDEN Imaging Services 



The final COA – Regional Engagement – most closely resembles what appears to be the pattern of operations currently undertaken by Canada, specifically via maritime diplomacy. Deployed naval assets are mostly employed to conduct port-of-call visits, training and operations with traditional allies (US), close defence partners (Australia and Japan), new partners (Vietnam) and emerging major powers (China, India). This approach is not strictly confined to presence operations but contributing to regional security missions as well as the need/request arises (such as North Korean sanctions monitoring at sea). There is, however, no overt involvement in the strategic rivalry between the US and China, including avoiding operating near or commenting on areas of disputes such as American Freedom of Navigation patrols in the South China Sea. This approach, therefore, explicitly avoids overt balancing as per Canada’s NATO contributions in Europe against Russia. Building, though, a semi-permanent presence within the region, within the broader context of Canada’s unambiguous security alignment with the US, is a passive form of balancing against China or any other would be revisionist state. China, however, is not seen as an inevitable revolutionary power but rather one whose emergence and growing regional and global power and influence will impact and to some degree challenge the contemporary international order but not unacceptably so.[xi]




Canada should continue along its preferred COA: Regional Engagement. Given the complex entanglement of economic and security relations in the region, it is uncertain whether Canada could reasonable progress the former without engagement with the latter. This is particularly salient in terms of participating and being a member of the region’s political forums where both issues are addressed. Canada, also, should be involved as it is a vital region in the world where allies are present, the rules-based order could be contested and where global stability is dependent on the continued peaceful and prosperous nature of the region moving forward. Absence would lower if not entirely erase Canadian credibility with the region, which would hurt security and economic relations and alienate allies and new partners who will be crucial in contributing to a new regional, and global, balance of power.

Overt balancing is not an appropriate COA. Many regional states do not envision containing China entirely but rather restraining any hegemonic aspirations, which in part rests on ensuring the US remains a committed and credible security partner. With that in mind, however, the region is not looking to be carved up into zero-sum alignments, and thus while many regional states are allies of the US (or lean towards them security wise), they are not prepared to support American actions which unnecessarily antagonize China.[xii] On this point, a NATO for Asia is ill-advised given the expected retaliation by China, further cementing Beijing’s belief that others are attempting to contain their rise. Canada, also, should be wary of promoting or joining an alliance which is simply anti-China in its raison d’etre. It is unlikely, furthermore, that many states would join a multi-state alliance pact unless under an extreme collective threat from China. Increasing Chinese investment and trade relations with many states have shifted some regional states’ leanings away from the US, but to date there has not been any decisive abandonment away from Washington and to Beijing.[xiii] What is decisively changing, however, is the movement away from American military primacy to an uncertain new regional configuration of power. In this new environment, whether China and the US can find a way to both be present and powerful there without falling into a regressively zero-sum and dangerous contest over hegemony and spheres of influence is uncertain. Such a determination, however, also involves other regional powers, many of which do not want to succumb to Chinese hegemony, be dragged into an unnecessary conflict with Beijing by Washington or eventually be abandoned by the US altogether.[xiv]

Regional Engagement offers the best approach given the strategic characteristics of the region and Canada’s position as a middle power. Canada should not be the little sheriff of US in the region acting as simply an extension of American power, for we do not possess the material and leadership wherewithal to act in such a capacity and, more importantly, because of the common interest with other middle and small-sized regional powers to avoid transforming the region into a bipolar landscape of China versus the US. Such efforts are part of a larger strategy to regularly engage and work directly with each other in an era of major power competition.  An era where major powers, specifically China, Russia, and the US, are attempting to gain greater degrees of freedom to reconstitute external relations to their advantage which undermines key aspects of international law, institutions and norms: components which are important to smaller-sized powers to ensure they do not become subsumed by pure realpolitik rivalry between major ones.

This approach, furthermore, allows for engagement with China but also facilitates latent balancing via operating and training with allied and partner navies and militaries. It is clear which ‘side’ Canada is on, but this is not expressed in an overt way as per contributions to NATO versus Russia as the environment in the Indo-Pacific region and the nature of China as an emerging major power are different. Russia poses a more immediate and regional military and security to the West but is not a global challenger whereas China is a peer competitor with the military and, more importantly, economic power to challenge not just regional but global balances of power.[xv] The suite of capabilities and strategies to confront both are very different, specifically in the case of China which cannot and should not be solely seen as a military challenge requiring a military solution.  None of this, though, answers what new configuration of power will define East Asia, but for Canada the bedrock interest is contributing to a process in which this determination is made peacefully and gradually without existentially threatening regional or global stability.




Canada’s primary focus militarily is and should remain on building her credibility throughout the region via continuous, meaningful and multi-faceted engagements which demonstrate a strong and enduring commitment to becoming a trusted, valued and reliable security partner. In so doing Canada will gain acceptance into the various security forums, networks and processes defining the region. As the Indo-Pacific region is primarily a maritime region, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has and will likely continue to spearhead Canadian efforts to establish a visible and regularized military presence there. Canada can by and large retain its regional engagement approach, but there are several recommendations for institutionalizing this approach as a long-term project.         


FORCES: The recapitalization of the RCN via the National Shipbuilding Strategy most likely will not provide enough platforms to fulfil the multiple regional mission sets currently and expected into the future. Serious consideration should be given to not just modernizing the RCN but expanding it with additional platforms and perhaps a reorganization into home and expeditionary oriented fleets and moving more naval assets from the east to west coast.[xvi] Assuming, though, the size and mission tempo of the RCN will remain the same, , a prudent decision would be the forward deployment of RCN assets to friendly states, such as Japan and Australia. Canada should continue to operate with the US, but direct stationing in these smaller states shows a degree of autonomy and avoids being simply an appendage of American military power. Such contributions, furthermore, would most likely be welcomed and not conditioned on diplomatic overtures, specifically in the case of Japan and its outstanding islands disputes with China in the East China Sea. Japan has not made this a condition in furthering military relations with other regional powers and thus it is unlikely they would make such demands on Ottawa. Furthermore, Regularized exchanges, language and cultural training must be prioritized to deepen personal contacts between Canadian and Asian militaries. Future capability acquisition, also, for the RCN (and other services) must incorporate the changing military technologies and strategies employed in the Indo-Pacific and other contested regions, particularly A2/AD. To that end, Canada should acquire ballistic-missile defence for the RCN and begin immediate procurement planning for a new submarine replacement for the Victoria-class diesel-electric submarines: capabilities that are valuable in contested, A2/AD maritime spaces.[xvii]


EXPANDED GEOGRAPHICAL FOCUS: As the promotion of an Indo-Pacific region is gaining credence within Asia and in the US, Canadian needs to broaden its current defence orientation which is overwhelming focused on the Pacific Ocean/East Asia versus the Indian Ocean/South Asia. The Indo-Pacific region represents and is the result of the tethering of two ocean complexes – the Indian and Pacific oceans – increasingly interconnected via trade, energy flows and an emerging balance of power in which the role of India should not be overlooked. Much of the Indo-Pacific region literature and policy remains nebulous, but there is growing debate about the formal establishment of the ‘Quad’ – the four democratic states of Australia, India, Japan and the US – which combined can effectively balance Chinese power.[xviii] At this stage, it seems unlikely these four will formalize their relationship into any sort of alliance framework, especially given the privileging of autonomy India asserts in their foreign policy. Canada should be wary of entering into any sort of formal arrangement (akin to the ‘NATO for Asia’), but frequent engagement with these states collectively should be a priority, including regularized visits and exercises. Canada, also, should further military relations with the ASEAN States which populate Southeast Asia which connects both these ocean regions together. One possibility includes the establishment of a logistics hub in Singapore which has carefully managed its relations with other major powers and plays an outsized role in regional affairs. These efforts support the focus on building relations with the ‘spokes’ in the region and not exclusively with or through the ‘hub’ in the US.

Photo: MARPAC Imaging Services


FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION: The increasing importance of the issue of Freedom of Navigation (FON), and the use of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) by the United States Navy to challenge excessive Chinese (and other states’) maritime claims in the South China Sea will further pressure Canada to develop a coherent position on this issue. As Canadian warships increasingly sail and operate in contested waters (their sheer size making their avoidance virtually impossible), Ottawa needs to have a clear policy to guide and inform its employment of naval assets there and give clarity to the US and other allies (such as Britain and France) which are increasingly conducting FONOPs and may ask for Canadian participation in the future. The RCN has experience (most recently with Russia in the Black Sea) in dealing with competitor states overshadowing them in contested waters, which has already occurred to Canadian warships in the South China Sea by China and may become a more regularized behavior of them moving forward.[xix] Canada already conducts a passive form of FONOPs by sailing in the South China Sea contrary to China’s claim to almost the entirety of this space as an Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) wherein Beijing asserts foreign warships cannot operate without their express permission.[xx] Greater coordination and liaison, furthermore, with allies, regional partners and China should be a priority to tease of their respective views on these matters while also ensuring military posturing and manoeuvring to express these views does not escalate to dangerous levels.


Canada, also, has a strategic interest in ensuring the maritime domain does not become engulfed by major power competition, specifically the erection of zones of exemption wherein major powers retain their support for the global maritime regime but with important caveats in waters closer to home. This issue has direct relevance to Canadian security for as the Arctic Ocean increasingly becomes more accessible to commercial and military use, there may be calls to adopt more stringent rules around foreign warships due to sovereignty concerns. Here, however, Canada can be a leader in promoting the Arctic as the exemplar of how UNCLOS is respected and applied, including affording the freedom of foreign military assets to operate there, which one day will most likely include China. One major outstanding issue, however, is the possibility of American FONOPs contesting Canada’s internal waters designation of the Northwest Passage, which will likely result in Ottawa not developing a clear and universal policy on FONOPs.[xxi] Canada must engage with the United States and others regarding FON in the Arctic, and in particular highlight the different strategic environments of the Indo-Pacific and Arctic regions which should inform any decision to conduct FONOPs in these respective areas. Growing pressures in Asian to challenge excessive maritime claims by China, therefore, necessitate a careful and calculative approach by Ottawa which legitimizes and enables continued naval transit of and operations in waters claimed by China but which does not undermine its position on the Northwest Passage or the stability of the Arctic as a whole by supporting the blunt implementation of FONOPs by the US there[xxii]




Engagements with the Indo-Pacific region must be sustained over the long term as an augmenting defence priority for Canada, with emphasis on building ties and relations with, knowledge of and experiences operating there. For the military, this implies not just technical matters of deployment cycles but professional education for its members of the security and political dynamics of the region and for the Government of Canada a continual appraisal and assessment of its strategic stability and how this impacts diplomatic and military priorities and operations. Currently the priority should remain on rebuilding our reputation and presence in the region. Moves towards overt alignment with the US and/or containment against China are not prudent, and in fact extremely detrimental, at this juncture. What is required is building a cohort of like-minded medium-sized powers coordinating actions to reduce the excesses of major power competition both in Asia and further abroad across all fronts.


Adam P. Macdonald, PhD Candidate, Dalhousie University

[i] Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy, Canada: Department of National Defence, 2017, p. 90

[ii] David Pugliese. “Canadian Navy Plans Persistent Presence in the Asia-Pacific,” Seapower, April 2018, pp. 28-29

[iii] Patrick James. “Grand, Bland, or Somewhat Planned? Toward a Canadian Strategy for the Indo-Pacific Region,” Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, August 2014.

[iv] Jinelle Piereder, and Alex Brouse. “Gone AWOL? Canada’s Multi-track Diplomacy and Presence in the Asia Pacific,” Canadian International Council, 08 June 2018, .

[v] James Manicom. “Canada must Prove Its Not a ‘Fair-Weather Friend’ to Asia,” Centre for International Governance Innovation, 07 January 2014.

[vi] Nick Wadhams and Jennifer Jacobs. “Trump Seeks Huge Premiums From Allies Hosting US Troops,” Bloomberg, 08 March 2019.

[vii]  “National Security Strategy of the United State of America,” President of the United States, December 2017, p. 25.

[viii] Ely Ratner, et al. “The Emerging Asia Power Web: The Rise of Bilateral Intra-Asian Security Ties,” Center for a New American Security, 10 June 2013.

[ix] Adam P. MacDonald. “Rising Alone: China’s Lack of Strategic Allies,” Conference of Defence Associations Institute, 12 August 2015, ; Srdjan Vucetic, et al. “The Prospects for Chinese Leadership in an Age of Upheaval,” The Conversation, 22 July 2018,

[x] Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy, pp. 49, 59-61.  

[xi] Randall Schweller. “Rising Powers and Revisionism in Emerging International Orders,” Global Affairs, 07 October 2015.

[xii] Darren J. Lim, and Zack Cooper. “Reassessing Hedging: The Logic of Alignment in East Asia,” Security Studies” 24:4 (2015): 696-727. 

[xiii] Max Fisher, and Audrey Carlsen. “How China is Challenging American Dominance in Asia,” The New York Times, 09 March 2018,

[xiv] Charles McDermid. “Southeast Asia Has Major Doubts About US Reliability in the Region, but Still Wary of China: Survey,” South China Morning Post, 07 January 2019,

[xv] James Dobbins, Howard J. Shatz, and Ali Wyne. “Russia is a Rogue, Not a Peer; China is a Peer, Not a Rogue,” RAND Corporation, October 2018.

[xvi] Adam P. MacDonald. “A Canadian Naval Turn to East Asian in the Making? Interests, Expectations and Challenges,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 20:3(2014) 334-347. 

[xvii] Adam P. MacDonald. “The Case for Canadian Naval Ballistic Missile Defence,” Canadian Naval Review 14:3(2019): 4-9.

[xviii] Brian Lee Crowley, et al. “Responding to China’ Rise: Japan and India as Champions for the Rule of Law in the Indo-Pacific,” Macdonald-Laurier Institute, August 2017.

[xix] Mathew Fisher. “Canadian Warships Shadowed by Chinese Navy in South China Sea,” National Post, 14 July 2017,

[xx] Lynn Kuok. “The U.S. FON Program in the South China Sea: A lawful and necessary response to China’s strategic ambiguity,” The Brookings Institute, East Asia Policy Paper 9, June 2016.

[xxi] Adam Lajeunesse. “Is the Next Big Fight Over the Northwest Passage Coming?” Policy Options, 14 February 2019,

[xxii] Rebecca Picnus. “Rushing Navy Ships into the Arctic for a FONP is Dangerous,” US Naval Institute, January 2019.

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