The Harper government’s response to the humanitarian disaster in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, and the announcement Nov. 22 of the Canada-United States Asia-Pacific Defense Policy Cooperation Framework, signal that its policy towards Asia is developing a greater security dimension to accompany its single-minded emphasis to date on economic objectives.

This move could not be timelier.

For the past several decades Asia-Pacific has been a region of remarkable growth, economic dynamism and rising living standards.  By the middle of this century it is projected that the centre of the global economy will rest firmly in Asia.

But the picture in Asia is not entirely rosy. While the economic engine of the Asia-Pacific region continues to drive global growth, it is facing a troubling set of security challenges. Most importantly, the region has become the main stage on which the new geopolitical order will be sorted out between the American superpower and a rising China.

This geopolitical shift is accompanied by heightened attention to historical maritime jurisdictional issues involving a more assertive China and robust responses by Japan, Philippines and Vietnam in particular. The risks of serious incidents at sea have increased substantially since 2009.

The tensions in the South China Sea have been stoked by the competition for increasingly sought-after hydrocarbon and fisheries resources. This sea is also a major shipping route, the disruption of which would interrupt vital supply lines of energy, food and other trade with serious impacts on the regional and global economies. 

Growing nationalism in many countries adds a further dangerous dimension. While nationalist outcries can be useful to a government sending messages to countries with which it has maritime boundary or other differences, nationalism can limit the freedom of leaders to curb tensions and seek accommodation later. 

China’s worrisome military buildup may get most of the attention, but many other Asian countries have launched military modernization programs, moving from an emphasis on defending borders to the ability to project power externally. Japan’s government is drawing criticism from China and South Korea for considering changes to its post-war constitution that would permit it to participate for the first time in collective defense arrangements with other countries.

Finally, the region’s non-traditional security problems, including piracy, human trafficking, drugs and crime, have not gone away. And now cyber security has been added to the list. And these trends are in addition to the persistent dangers posed by the North Korean regime, and the instabilities on Asia’s Western flank in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Canadians seem to be aware of the heightened risks to peace and security in the region. In May 2013, the Asia Pacific Foundation reported that a majority of respondents in a recent survey believed that a conflict among Asian countries is likely in the next 10 years. 

So far, Canada’s recent re-emphasis on the Asia-Pacific has concentrated almost solely on responding to the tremendous economic opportunities available now and into the future. The Harper government has moved to negotiate trade agreements and support business objectives. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark have led the provinces in upping their game in Asia.

But it is now becoming clear that Canada’s own security, as well as broader strategic interests, require more that just an economic emphasis. Greater investments are needed by our defense, foreign affairs and other establishments to bring a serious security dimension to Canada’s approach to the Asia-Pacific.

Not only is this necessary from a national security standpoint, it is also helpful to our economic objectives. In Asia, success is more likely to come to those foreign companies whose governments show political commitment to the region’s future, including its security, and are not just there for economic gain.  

With the rise of China and India particularly, it also makes sense for Canada to be more visible and broadly engaged in the region where decisions are increasingly being made that determine global outcomes.  

Most countries in Asia will welcome Canada taking a greater interest and role in regional security. In addition, Australia, South Korea and some ASEAN countries would see Canada as a constructive partner on many issues, adding our weight to theirs in re-enforcing positive patterns of behavior and co-operation, building more effective institutions in the security domain, and messaging to the biggest players. 

Finally, we have a stake in supporting a continuing strong presence by the US in Asian security. The announcement of the framework recognizes that point. 

It will take time and effort for Canada to convince the region we are once again serious about Asia. We will need to be patient in our effort to gain formal admission to the region’s most important security grouping: the ASEAN defence ministers, plus the those from the US, China, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, India and Japan. 

Ultimately, a meaningful security dimension to Canada’s stake in the Asia-Pacific will require engagement across the spectrum of our security establishment—defence, foreign affairs, immigration, border services, intelligence, policing, foreign and development. 

Canada has a lot at stake in the Asia-Pacific. Our actions in the Philippines and with the new Canada-US arrangement suggest that a broader engagement may be on the way.

Ultimately, a meaningful security dimension to Canada’s stake in the Asia-Pacific will require engagement across the spectrum of our security establishment—defence, foreign affairs, immigration, border services, intelligence, policing, foreign and develop
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