While Canada’s engagement in Asia has been uncertain since the late 1990s, things seem to be back on track. Ottawa is once again showing leadership. The just concluded free trade agreement with South Korea is a case in point. Other negotiations are underway, such as with Japan, and trade missions and businesses are travelling to Asia in unprecedented numbers.
Despite this revival of activity, there has been relatively less attention paid to the security dimension and the complex forces making East Asia less stable than it has been over much of the past 30 years. They include the rise of China, growing instability on the Korean peninsula, resurgent nationalism, border and maritime boundary disputes, nuclear proliferation, and a rash of new security challenges such as cyberterrorism, human and drug trafficking, and food security.

Indeed, among Asia experts, gloomy assessments are the order of the day, driven by security tensions and political risks, including maritime sovereignty issues and the grittiness of relations between the US and a rising China.

Over the past two decades the economic and security dimensions in the region have complemented each other well: economic progress in East Asia particularly has contributed to a more secure region. This greater security has given economic ties a chance to thrive. Nowadays, however, economic and security trajectories seem to be on a collision course.

That is the conclusion of a just published joint study by Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). The study warns of the factors contributing to enhanced tension in the Asia Pacific, and calls for increased co-operation between Australia and Canada as a way to effectively reduce those tensions while protecting the significant economic stakes each country has in the region.

While the need for a focus on security in the Asia Pacific is a obvious for Australians, it is a much harder sell on this side of the Pacific.

While Canada has a choice in becoming more engaged in Asian security, it is a false one. We have economic interests to protect, as well as the security of Canadians. And in Asia, long-term trade and investment partners are expected to do more than just take the money and run.

For Canada, the way that Australia has engaged in its region — admittedly from necessity — provides striking examples of what can be done to demonstrate commitment and make a difference. And working together, as the CIGI-ASPI Report recommends, means we can have a greater impact together than working alone — while realizing a better return for taxpayer dollars in the process.

The areas of potential co-operation are many, and can build upon some recent steps taken by the Harper government.

The CIGI-ASPI study’s 20-plus recommendations provide a rich range of possibilities, from a greater sharing of information and assessments, to working together to build trust among protagonists and reduce the chances of conflict, to joint planning and operations in areas of disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, building cyber resilience, and combating human trafficking.

On the major geopolitical challenge facing the region — that of the evolving U.S.-China relationship — Canada and Australia can work together to help ensure that regional security issues are managed to reduce the chance that they become focal points for U.S.-China confrontations. We can co-ordinate our messages in Beijing and Washington and undertake initiatives that build trust and lead to positive behaviours.

While some of the recommendations, such as greater participation in multilateral military exercises and enhancing our naval presence in the region, have significant cost implications, many of the steps in the report are less costly.

Ultimately, there needs to be a realignment of resources from Canada’s traditional Atlantic-Europe security bias to this new and necessary Asia-Pacific priority. But this will take time, which we do not have.

The benefits in favour of working together with Australia are compelling, especially in the increasingly troubling security environment. Perhaps the close relationship that has now developed between Prime Minister Harper and the new Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who will meet later this year will provide the catalyst for moving forward.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.