First and foremost, a broader policy agenda must grapple with the military and strategic aspects of China's tremendous economic success and the U.S. reaction. Much ink has been spilt and hands have been wrung over China’s military build-up. However, with the announcement of the new American Strategic Guidance document, it seems as if the United States is ready to pivot away from the North Atlantic and Near East and towards the Pacific basin, where Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, and others have welcomed them as a balance to China. The Strategic Guidance document has China in mind, as it calls for U.S. armed forces that are lighter on the ground, and that emphasize sea and air assets, Special Forces, and exotic technology.
This Asia pivot is further affected by what one former U.S. State Department official described as a declining appetite in Washington to “own” the world’s problems. The United States may still continue to intervene in failed states, civil wars, and disaster zones, but their commitment may be more limited, their footprint smaller, and the expectations of their allies (including Canada), greater. In an age of austerity, the Obama administration has prioritized seeking continued dominance in the Pacific basin at a cost to power projection elsewhere.
While this doesn’t mean a Sino-American Cold War is inevitable, it raises the potential for a prolonged security competition and the risk of conflict. China’s strategic ambitions are often described as opaque, and its historical claims to the South China Sea certainly raise tensions and fuel minor security dilemmas with its southern neighbors. This is in part why America’s Pacific pivot has been welcomed.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The challenge for Canada is therefore how to benefit from Asia’s prosperity and make itself a regional player, while being constrained by the fact that we are inexorably linked to the United States. When American domestic politics stalled the construction of a pipeline that would have run from Canada’s oil sands to the Texas coast, the Canadian government was quick to highlight Asia’s appetite for oil and the proposal to build an east-west pipeline to carry oil to Canada’s Pacific ports and markets beyond. While Asia’s rise benefits Canada in this case, playing the U.S. off of China/India/ASEAN when convenient is neither a strategy for engaging Asia, nor for addressing Canada’s dependence on the United States.
David Carment is Editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and Professor of International Affairs at Carleton. Simon Palamar is a doctoral candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs specializing in arms control and conflict analysis.