As Canada develops its own economic pivot towards the countries of the Asia-Pacific, it’s also going to have to develop a coherent security policy toward the region.

It’s going to need imaginative thinking and focus to develop a policy tailored to deepening our trade and investment ties while simultaneously addressing the security needs of those with whom we want to do business.

Canadians are not strategically-inclined by nature; geography has conspired to align our security interests with those of the United States.

But we’re going to have to change our thinking and get serious about the kind of role we want to play in the world’s fastest-growing neighborhood. If we don’t, we will quickly find ourselves marginalized in what many are now calling “the Pacific century.”

Already we are hearing from some of our friends in the region that if we want to do business with them and sign new free trade and investment deals, we’re going to have to become a more reliable and engaged defense and security partner. Carpetbag diplomacy simply won’t cut it in this part of the world.

China’s past leadership rankled its regional neighbours needlessly with its attempts to impose its own version of the Monroe Doctrine. The good news is that the tense relationship with Japan is abating somewhat. China’s foreign minister has moved up the political ladder and China’s new leadership team is seen as generally better and brighter than the “old guard”. Let’s hope.

But the Foreign Ministry in Beijing is still not strong or assertive. The Chinese military wields enormous influence and its tentacles of control extend into the far reaches of the Chinese economy. China’s new leader, President Xi, is trying to rein in corruption, including military corruption, but that is a Herculean task.

However, Cold War-style strategies of containment are not the answer to the region’s complex security challenges. Unlike the former Soviet Union, China is far too important an economic player in the global economy, including the public finances of the United States, to be contained or treated as an enemy. China must continue to be engaged and encouraged to become a responsible member of the global community. But we must also hedge our bets with robust defences and by boosting Canada’s contribution to the security and stability of the region with our own “pivot” that includes a greater naval presence in the Pacific.

Further, at a time when NATO’s raison d’etre is increasingly outdated, we need to press for either reform or innovation — institutional and consultative — intended to contain tensions and promote greater stability. (Why not, for example, invite China to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership?)

Increasing cyber-attacks, now signaled publicly by U.S. National Security Advisor Tim Donilon as posing unprecedented risks, introduce new sources of tension and warrant special attention and collective vigilance. We lack appropriate, institutional defence mechanisms; leaving each nation to its own reactions is unlikely to be good enough. U.S. leadership is essential on this issue but it can’t deal with the problem unilaterally. There could be a new, more relevant role for a “NATO plus” approach to this rapidly growing threat.

In the rush to exit from Afghanistan, do we assume the AfPak mess will be miraculously better post-2014? What thought is being given to the post-intervention period? A ‘back to the Taliban future’ would be unacceptable to all. Can China continue to stand aside? Both are its border states, after all. Neither military power nor massive aid has had the desired effect, but Chinese investment and greater interest in Afghanistan’s future could help change what increasingly looks like a horrible post-2014 equation.

At the same time, the region is going to require stronger regional security institutions that include confidence-building measures that reduce the risks of confrontation and escalation. Incidents like the recent ramming of a Japanese fishing trawler by a Chinese vessel — apparently not on orders from Beijing, but allegedly because the captain was drunk — could get out of control and trigger an unintended spiral of hostilities that could lead to war if tensions were high and there was already a major crisis brewing.

One of the important lessons of the Cold War was the critical role that cooperative institutional undertakings like arms control and confidence-building measures (such as the Incidents at Sea Agreement and the Helsinki Process, which led to the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation for Europe, since succeeded by the OSCE) in reducing tensions and creating a more predictable security environment.

Just as Canada was a key contributor to the security of Europe through NATO and the negotiation of key confidence-building instruments like the CSCE, we have a similar role to play in the evolving security and defense architecture of the Asia-Pacific.

Only this time, it is not because the countries of the Asia-Pacific region (or the rest of the world for the matter) are breathlessly waiting for “more Canada”. It’s because our own strategic interests demand it.

Derek H. Burney is senior strategic advisor for Norton Rose Canada LLP and a former Canadian ambassador to the United States. Fen Osler Hampson is a Distinguished Fellow and director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor’s Professor (on leave) at Carleton University.

© 2013 iPolitics Inc.

Cold War-style strategies of containment are not the answer to the region’s complex security challenges.
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