Maritime security has been an important building block of Sino-Canadian cooperation in East Asia. Whether it will be again is another story.

Maritime security underwrites Canada’s diplomatic legacy in East Asia and was an important building block in Sino-Canadian relations. The South China Sea Dialogues, a series of Track Two meetings hosted by Indonesia and funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, did a great deal to soften some of the tension that surrounded the South China sea in the mid-1990s. The non-official nature of the meetings, composed of academics and policymakers acting in their personal capacity, allowed a frank exchange of ideas and leveraged Canada’s relative strengths as a provider of international legal expertise and of good offices. Importantly, China, the country that is often seen as the slowest mover on multilateral dialogues, was on record as preferring Canadian funding to alternatives arrangements funded by the United States or Japan.

As the government once again sets its sights on East Asia, many want to know whether this kind of meeting is worth resuscitating. This is unsurprising, as once again the coastal states of the South China Sea are posturing over claims to rocks, reefs, and the surrounding sea area. A renewal of a multilateral Track Two process backed by Canada might seem like an appropriate way to add a diplomatic dimension to what has generally been an economically-oriented re-engagement strategy. However, the region and the disputes in the South China Sea have changed since the 1990s. There may be ways for Canada to use maritime security to improve ties with China  and help build confidence in the relationship, but multilateral Track Two diplomacy may not be one of them.

The first change is that the tone of maritime tensions is far more adversarial now than was the case during the 1990s. As a function of the deployment of more advanced vessels, claimants now have the capability to engage in sustained confrontation at sea, witnessed between the Philippines and China in April 2012. Furthermore, governments in Beijing, Manila, and Hanoi have tied their prestige to defending maritime claims and thus confront serious domestic political consequences to compromise. This is not a climate in which policymakers can engage in meaningful dialogue at any level.

Second, the proliferation of multilateral Track Two dialogues has arguably reduced their effectiveness. Many of these have become annual meetings, composed of the same people, discussing the same issues, with few new ideas. Furthermore, as a function of the conditions noted above, these have become adversarial to the point that they are little more than opportunities for the dogmatic reassertion of one country’s claim over another. As China is perceived to be the source of regional tensions, this climate reduces earnest Chinese participation.

Finally, Canada may not have the diplomatic clout to convene a dialogue that works. Cancelling funding for the South China Sea dialogues, likely an uncontroversial financial decision in Ottawa, cost Canada its reputation in East Asia. According to recently departed ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, Canada still has some ground to make up in the region.

Fortunately, there are ways to re-build Canada’s brand in the region that leverage its strengths in dialogue and in maritime security. First, a series of bilateral Track Two meetings between Canada and vital regional states like Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as the Northeast Asian powers of China, Japan, and South Korea are in order. Some of these already exist in some form or another, but have stagnated due to a lack of investment. These dialogues could consider regional security, economic synergies, and civil society engagement. Importantly, given the commercial nature of Canada’s regional interests, garnering private sector support may be a way to fund these meetings as budgets are slashed in Ottawa.

Second, Canada can rebuild its brand by committing to a visible maritime presence in East Asia. This means increasing the tempo of port visits to the region and increasing the level of engagement with regional navies, particularly China. A more cost-effective option is to conduct exercises with vessels from China, Japan and South Korea that are supporting international anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden.

Finally, Canada can leverage its status as a maritime nation to build confidence in East Asia. Like Canada, many East Asian countries police large exclusive economic zones with scarce resources. Canada could reach out to states that are interested in conducting joint exercises, exchanges, or tabletop exercises. Canada could also contribute to coast guard capacity building in Southeast Asia, which could involve Canadian vessels in theatre or simply educational exchanges

Maritime security has been a pillar of regional engagement strategies employed by China, Japan, and the United States; it can be the same for Canada. However, China is only one piece of the puzzle. If Canada is indeed to be perceived as an honest broker and one that is independent of the United States – a necessary condition for Chinese engagement in the 21st century – it will need to engage multiple countries in the region.

These proposals are ambitious, costly, and will stretch already strained regional diplomatic resources. But, if in fact Canada’s future lies in the Pacific, they are worth it.

There may be ways for Canada to use maritime security to improve ties with China and help build confidence in the relationship, but multilateral Track Two diplomacy may not be one of them.
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