Urgency in the Indo-Pacific: Canada at a distance as China becomes increasingly embedded

Cleo Paskal

In your recent publication in The Diplomat on U.S. policy in the Pacific Islands, you wrote about how the U.S., at least in the political sphere, hasn’t really woken up to how Beijing-fueled corruption is eroding countries from the inside. Could you provide insight into whether Canada is faring much better in our relationships with Pacific Island nations?

I think there are a lot of people in the U.S. who do understand what’s going on, including in the State Department and definitely in the Department of Defense. There’s an understanding of the importance of it, it’s just a variation on urgency. For example, you have a situation in the Solomon Islands where the PRC has signed a security deal with the government of the Solomon Islands that will allow, with the pro-PRC Prime Minister’s approval, the deployment of PLA troops in the Solomon Islands to secure Chinese major infrastructure, keep PRC citizens safe, and put down civil dissent. The U.S. opened up an embassy—this is the site of the Battle of Guadalcanal. They had closed the embassy a couple of decades ago and reopened it, but the embassy has very limited staff and no consular services.

There’s a doctor at the hospital there who just got a scholarship to study more advanced techniques in the U.S. But for him to take up that scholarship he has to pay for himself to fly to Papua New Guinea to apply to the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea for a visa to go to the U.S.—something which he can’t afford. Meanwhile, the PRC has doctors in the hospital, and they sent the Peace Ark into port to collect DNA. They say to deliver medical services, which they do, but at the same time, they have their own influence operations.

That gives you an idea of the mismatch between what the U.S. is doing in what’s considered a very sensitive, important location, and what China is doing. Canada is not on that map at all. Canada’s not there at all. There’s a lot that Canada can be doing, and I think GAC wants to, and I think they’re increasing their focus on the area. Canada has the tools to build those relationships in a much stronger way and in a uniquely Canadian way. There’s one project that’s being done using lessons learned in Canadian First Nations communities, in Vanuatu, around traditional medicine and commercialization of it. Those are things that are uniquely Canadian innovations that could really help with human security, which would make that political warfare outreach from the PRC much less effective. In the U.S., there’s more awareness, but I’m not sure that the people who are trying to do it are getting the resources, the staff, or the political will behind what needs to be done in order to make it truly effective.

In the context of the Indo-Pacific strategy, how much lag time do you think there is before we start seeing some material action follow?

Canada is doing things here and there. We have unbelievably limited resources dedicated to this. We have expertise, we have innovation, but we don’t have embassies or high commissions in a lot of locations, and we haven’t focused on business-to-business engagement. That same Solomon Islander doctor who has to fly to PNG to get a visa to go to the U.S. can actually enter Canada without a visa. Canada allows Solomon Islanders as tourists to come into Canada without a visa, but there’s no building on those entry points.

It’s the same with the French possessions in the Pacific Islands, French Polynesia, and New Caledonia. The citizens of France can study in Quebec for the same fees as Quebecers. We could be building up those relationships—getting young French Polynesians and New Caledonians to study in Quebec to create those linkages that you create when you’re in your early 20s that you can then carry on throughout your career. In other parts of the Indo-Pacific, there are other unique types of relationships, the relationships with India are complex, and there are some negative parts, but there are a lot of positive parts that could be built on. You really need to figure out where Canada’s unique leverage points are and realize that countries in the Indo-Pacific have a lot of people knocking on their door right now. They’re not doing Canada a favour by privileging us or making us front of the list for engagement. We really have to make that effort, take it seriously, and adapt it to each individual country in the context of developing a wider Indo-Pacific strategy that is built from the ground up so it’s more stable, cohesive, and sustainable.

There have been criticisms from several countries that Canada has been inconsistent with its engagement. Can you provide insight into those criticisms? Are we moving substantially in the right direction now?

Well, they’re right. Canada might show some interest, and it might not, and then something happens, and then for a domestic political reason Canada throws a fit. They’re completely right. Our strategies are at this point so unanchored in a long-term foundation that an individual in an office can make a huge difference. You get the right person in a high commission or an embassy and they can make an enormous difference—positive, or, if it’s the wrong person, negative. That’s not ideal. So, they’re right.

I think that Ottawa being Ottawa, it is just not geographically close. It’s a similar problem with Washington. Its physical location is a remnant of the Atlantic century, of the 19th and early 20th centuries. So, walking around Ottawa, you don’t see how the Indo-Pacific is part of Canada as you would if you’re in Vancouver, for example. You don’t get that sense of urgency; you don’t get that sense of rate of change. You also don’t feel insecure as you would if you’re in a location that is in the missile range of one of the Chinese missiles. I mean, for the U.S. it’s the Guam killer missile, the Chinese call it the Guam killer missile—that gets attention if you’re in the U.S. They haven’t publicly talked about their Vancouver-killer missile, but they can range Canada. It’s not that they will, but in the context of understanding why there is this lack of urgency—which means a lack of resources and a lack of cohesion—it’s kind of basic, but I think part of it is if you’re sitting in GAC in Gatineau or Ottawa you don’t feel it like you would if you’re in Hawaii, for example, or Tokyo or Manila. And that’s been reflected in some of the policies that have been made at the top political levels.

You’ve written on how China exploits opportunities to influence and interfere in Pacific Island nations, and recently on what that looks like in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands as well as the Solomon Islands. Could you give a brief treatment of what tactics and strategies China employs and what that spells for the region more broadly?

The best thing written on this was a letter written by the former president of the Federated States of Micronesia, a man called David Panuelo, which came out in March. He’s no longer president, but he, on September 6, came up with a follow-up to that letter which details what’s happened since March. He talks about, as the president of a country, what he saw happening in his country. This is a country that recognizes China but has a very close defense relationship with the U.S.—it’s in the middle of the Central Pacific.

We talk a lot about the first island chain and the second island chain, which share these strings of islands. The first island chain is Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, and Malaysia, that kind of hems in the Chinese, especially the navy, and China is pushing up against it with construction in the South China Sea—those islands are important from a Western defence architecture perspective. Those defences—first island chain, second island chain, the treaty allies in Japan and the Philippines—are only possible because the U.S. has this unique relationship with three countries in the Central Pacific. Palau, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia effectively give the U.S. unlimited defence rights over their land, air, and water. That means that they can roam this corridor of freedom from Hawaii all the way to the Philippines, all the way across.

So Panuelo is the president of the middle one of the three, the Federated States of Micronesia, a very large ocean territory, and it’s he who is describing these influence operations that were designed, he thinks, to essentially neutralize or weaken FSM in the case of an attack on Taiwan—to pull them away from the U.S. and make it much more difficult for the U.S. to deploy. This is a location that knew a lot of battles during World War II, the Battle of Truk was here, for example. He described the backing of separatist organizations to create social fragmentation to weaken the state and the bypassing of the federal government in things like who represents FSM at an international meeting. China had an international meeting, and the President didn’t want to send anybody, and China itself chose an FSM citizen to represent FSM at this meeting.

China brought enormous amounts of bribery and corruption—he would put in place a policy that would then not be enacted because a ministry had been compromised by China. So essentially, this kind of entropic warfare, where you create fragmentation and chaos within the state, and make it very difficult to operate. It’s very unusual to get the president, a sitting president, of a country, to describe what’s happening in his country. That’s why that letter is remarkable. And the follow-up, which just came out, says not only has that not stopped, but it has also accelerated since he left office. You can see echoes of that in many, many other countries across the entire Indo-Pacific,

What can be done either by Pacific Island nations or in concert with partners and allies elsewhere to bolster the ability of Pacific Island nations to counter China’s political and military assertiveness?

The entry point China comes in with, usually, is an economic front. It comes in on multiple planes, but there are two important ones. 1) They’ll find the country in need of economic development. These countries, especially because they’re recovering from the economic disaster of COVID, combined with high fuel prices resulting from the war in Ukraine and other factors—they’re at the end of a very long supply chain—they’re economically weak. So, China will come in and say “We’ll invest, or do X, Y, or Z, or bring in our tourists” and things like that. So, one level is to create economic options for these countries. And they have resources—fisheries, things like that—that have the potential to sustain them economically.

The other thing is this incredible amount of corruption. I mentioned there’s this braided approach with the commercial, the strategic, and the criminal activity. You go after the criminal activity—that’s the weak point. We’re supposed to do that anyway, we’re supposed to be pro-transparency, accountability, all that sort of stuff. A lot of the Chinese money, that bribe money, that goes to somebody like Sogavare, for example, the prime minister of Solomon Islands, will be laundered through Australian or New Zealand banks or real estate, things like that. Right now there is no downside to taking Chinese money. You never hear about a politician being punished for taking Chinese money. There’s no loss of assets, no loss of position, no loss of freedom, no loss of visa access. So, if you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis, and you don’t care about selling out your country, why wouldn’t you take the Chinese money?

There needs to be what I think of as ‘block and build’—you need to block the malign activity while you’re building the economic sustainability. And you can’t do one without the other. Whatever you try to build, China will see as a threat to the Chinese position and so will try to destroy it. You need to be able to block in order to be able to build. You need to put a political warfare security perimeter around the garden that you’re trying to grow. Otherwise, you won’t be able to grow it.

Does that also encompass or include some kind of physical security component then?

The other part of that is there is an enormous amount of Chinese organized crime that comes along with all of this. I’m not actually a huge fan of building up the policing component, because in many cases there actually isn’t that much murder in a place like the Solomon Islands, but what you need are investigators, lawyers, and the equivalent of district attorneys. You talk to somebody like the Attorney General of Palau, and she’ll say, “I know there’s a huge amount of corruption going on in my country, I want to clean it up, but I can’t find any lawyers to come, and work in Palau.” So, it’s a set of tools that you might not think of initially but are really essential.

The Governor of Northern Marianas has been fighting this incredible political warfare assault, which has included a Chinese casino that was running billions a month through his country—more than the casinos in Macau. They got in a new governor, and he wants to clean up his government, and he’s begging, practically, the U.S. federal government to send in a district attorney, FBI agents, and forensic accountants. We’re fighting on a political warfare battlefield, so we need the political warfare tools.

Now, at the same time, though, China is not stopping its military buildup, its kinetic build-up—that’s what you’re talking about. So, you also need to bolster that and create a situation where, again, the cost-benefit analysis in Beijing is altered so that it doesn’t think that it would be an easy win and might affect their decision-making, especially around something like Taiwan.

ASEAN is preparing to make Canada its latest strategic partner. Do you think this will have any material impact on security in the region?

ASEAN is also just signing a deal with the Pacific Islands Forum. You need to engage with ASEAN because the individual member countries of ASEAN find it important. But ASEAN is only as strong as its weakest members. And it has a few very, very weak members, who act as proxies for the PRC in the context of ASEAN negotiations. So, I would expect Canada coming in and attending ASEAN meetings is great, but what will probably come out of it that would actually be efficient is more the side meetings, the bilateral meetings, and getting a sense of which countries are really far down the PRC influence path and which countries are trying to break away. The Philippines is doing incredible work around its transparency initiative, where it is actually showing video of what the Chinese ships are doing to the Filipino ships. So being in the room helps in that way and helps build relationships and trust and things like that. But direct ASEAN-Canada initiatives that help in a larger security perspective may not be imminently forthcoming.

There’s been quite a bit of hay made about Canada being left out of AUKUS. Does this really indicate a substantial security disadvantage? Or does it represent an opportunity for Canada to pursue and deepen other partnerships that we haven’t typically prioritized?

What they say is there’s going to be multiple phases of AUKUS. And I would take it as a good moment for self-reflection about why Canada is not trusted as a partner in that way, instead of immediately jumping on to the next thing. I’m not sure we needed to be included, but the reason why we definitely wouldn’t have been included I think is because Canada is perceived as heavily penetrated and not a reliable security partner for what are the crown jewels of defence technology. Whereas Australia, which has its own issues with PRC penetration, publicly known, was considered appropriate. Now, again, I’m not sure it’s something that any side would have wanted. I’m not sure if we want nuclear submarines if we can afford them—I don’t know. Regardless, I don’t think we would have even gotten out of the gate because of the perception of how secure Canada is or isn’t. And we shouldn’t just move on to the next thing, we should use it as an excuse to talk about it publicly, think about it, and be open about it. New Zealand also wasn’t included, and it’s also known to be quite heavily penetrated. And if we think that’s a problem then now’s a good time to talk about all that.

I mentioned the three U.S. Freely Associated States—Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, and Republic of the Marshall Islands—they go across the middle, and they go from Hawaii to the Philippines. Their Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the U.S. have a financial component that’s renewed every 20 years and we are in that renewal cycle now. The renewal is going to U.S. Congress, and if it’s not renewed by the 30th of September 2023, they fall off a financial cliff. That includes for everything from the postal service to the weather service to school programs. It is a major thing. It creates a sense of insecurity in the countries that is a perfect opening for PRC political warfare to say, “Look, the Americans aren’t giving you this consistent funding if you’re part of us, we would make sure that everything was fine.” At the same time, they’re paying off a few of the decision-makers to make sure that they are personally fine. You have an election coming up in one of the three, the Marshall Islands, in November, where this may be an issue, and you have another one in Palau coming up next year which may be an issue.

From a Western defence architecture perspective, the assumption has been that those three U.S. Freely Associated States, this corridor of freedom, is secure. I’d recommend tracking very closely to see what happens, whether the financial components are renewed by the 30th of September or not, and if they’re not, trying to figure out why. Hopefully, it will happen, and this is all superfluous. But if there are problems, this could usher in something that the PRC has been trying to accomplish very actively—they’re trying to break the relationships with the U.S. over the COFAs, and it could change the region in the most fundamental way since the end of World War II.

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