After a decade of neglect, the Canadian government is prepared to re-engage East Asia. Recognizing that re-engagement must go beyond bilateral economic issues, Canadian policy-makers are seeking to deepen Canada’s regional diplomacy. In June 2012, at the 9th ASEAN-Canada dialogue, Foreign Minister John Baird pledged $10 million to fund various ASEAN initiatives to signal Canada’s commitment to regional stability.
Nevertheless, the region still perceives Canada as a fair-weather Asia-Pacific country that only seeks to establish the basic elements of trade and investment relations to diversify its trading partners. According to then-ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan, Canada’s admission to the region’s leading economic and defence forums — the East Asian Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) — remain out of reach until Southeast Asian states are convinced of the durability of Canada’s re-engagement. Adding a maritime component to Canada’s re-engagement efforts would help build Canada’s prestige while helping mitigate threats to the strategic stability that makes economic growth possible.
Maritime diplomacy contributes to regional peace and stability by addressing urgent problems, such as those affecting trade and fishing in East Asian waters. The region relies heavily on these sectors for growth, but is afflicted with numerous maritime and territorial disputes that are negatively affecting them. These disputes in turn threaten the very economic dynamism that has attracted Canada’s interest in the first place. Canada’s track record as a builder of confidence on disputed maritime boundaries means Canada is well placed to exploit this niche. However, a replication of the 1990s CIDA-funded South China Sea dialogues will not suffice.
Maritime diplomacy includes a number of initiatives designed to build confidence between would-be belligerents in East Asia. The long distances between Canada and the Pacific raise the costs of sustained naval engagement in the region. However, Canada could reach out to East Asian navies that are also conducting anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden in an effort to build ties between them. This could build momentum ahead of China’s anticipated participation in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific exercise.
If naval engagement is too politically sensitive, coast guard co-operation is an alternative, but just as important, avenue for co-operation. Like Canada, East Asian states confront the challenge of policing a large exclusive economic zone with limited resources, thus Canadian expertise and lessons learned are likely to be appreciated. Canada, China, Japan and South Korea are members of the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum (NPCGF), which co-ordinates efforts among members to address maritime security challenges. Canada could conduct joint exercises, exchanges or tabletop exercises with East Asian partners or explore regional interest in the establishment of a Southeast Asian equivalent of the NPCGF.
Finally, Canada could foster dialogue on co-operative resource exploitation in disputed areas. Although the marginal utility of track II dialogues in East Asia is on the decline, due to their proliferation and a reduction in earnest participation by Chinese participants, they are not entirely without value. Canada could lead discussions toward a regional fisheries management organization for Southeast Asian waters, for instance. Similarly, Canada could share its experience with maritime boundary delimitation and resource development in disputed waters.
By adding maritime diplomacy to its economically oriented regional re-engagement strategy, Canada signals its determined return to the region, building the reputation that it requires for membership to East Asia’s premier institutions. This could, in turn, pave the way for closer economic ties with East Asia. By paving the way for membership in institutions like the EAS, Canada gains a window into the ASEAN-centred process of regional trade liberalization including trade, finance and regulatory discussions. This also supports its efforts to pursue bilateral trade agreements with East Asian economies.
Importantly, maritime diplomacy offers a modest re-engagement strategy compared to calls for Canada to replicate Australia’s “whole of country” approach to Asia policy. Canada is not Australia and will always have important links with the Americas and with Europe. Above all, Canada’s strategy must transcend the electoral cycle; relationships are built in East Asia over the long term.