Why Is Canada Missing From the Indo-Pacific?

Recent Features

Features | Security

Why Is Canada Missing From the Indo-Pacific?

It’s time to bring Canada more fully and formally into the joint Indo-Pacific security fold.

Why Is Canada Missing From the Indo-Pacific?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ FireForEffect

The announcement of AUKUS, the ground-breaking trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, on September 16 generated the expected flood of discourse and debate in both the specialist and general media. Most coverage so far has been positive, welcoming, and salutary, apart from the understandable disappointment of the French as their own submarine contract was cancelled. Of course there has been the predictably belligerent response from China, and some expressions of concern about a new regional arms race, which is not new and is actually being driven by the relentless military build-up of China itself, with AUKUS as a partial response. And there were the obligatory alarmist comments from the Greens about nuclear submarines as “floating Chernobyls” (a label that has no real technical basis).

There was also some hand-wringing about the parties left out of AUKUS. But few have asked the question: Where are the Canadians?

Canada is part of the core five-nation Anglosphere with Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S., sharing many historical, cultural, social, political and legal similarities, liberal democratic values, and parliamentary governments. Today all five nations have trade-based fee-market economies and successful, vibrant, multicultural societies based on immigration. They also share strong military traditions and a legacy of mutually supportive alliances forged in the shedding of blood together, side-by-side in both World Wars, in Korea and more recently in Afghanistan.

However, while being a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement, Canada’s formal defense treaty obligations are limited to the European-focused North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Canada is not a party to any formal military treaty, alliance or construct in the Indo-Pacific region – although it is definitely a Pacific nation.

The Pacific coast of Canada, all part of the province of British Columbia, extends for an aerial distance of 1,000 kilometers between the U.S. states of Washington and Alaska, on the same latitudes as the northeast of China and the Russian Far East. Due to its deeply incised geography and over 40,000 islands of varying sizes, the actual length of Canada’s Pacific coast is over 25,000 km, compared to Australia’s Pacific coastline of about 33,000 km.

Similar to Australia, Canada is a bulk exporter of grains, mineral ores, coal, oil, and liquid natural gas, primarily to Asian markets, and a net importer of manufactured goods, primarily from Asian factories. Canada is thus overwhelmingly dependent on Pacific-based maritime trade, freedom of navigation, and maintenance of the rules-based order of ocean governance, security, and safety of shipping.

Canada is no less vulnerable than Australia and the U.S., and far more vulnerable than the U.K., to existing and emerging security threats in the Pacific, including not only the relentless military build-up of China, but also by Russia in its Far East region. The incursion of a four-ship Chinese task force into the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off Alaska in late August should send a clear signal to Canada also, given the close proximity to Canadian waters. Like Australia, Canada is subject to acts of pressure and coercion by China, including the politically motivated detention of Canadians, believed to be in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of the CFO of Huawei in Vancouver in late 2018, on U.S. charges of breaching sanctions on Iran.

Canada: Punching Below Its Weight?

Canada is more than the middle power that Australia often claims to be. It has a total land-area of nearly 10 million square kilometers (the second largest after Russia), compared to Australia’s 7.7 million sq km; a total coastline of over 240,000 km (the longest in the world), compared to Australia’s 59,000 km; a population of nearly 40 million, compared to Australia’s circa 25 million; and a GDP of over US$1.7 trillion, compared to Australia’s US$1.4 trillion.

However, these non-trivial quantum differences between Canada and Australia are not matched militarily. Canada is ranked 21st out of 140 countries in military strength while Australia punches well above its relative economic and population weight, being ranked 19th. For 2020 the total Canadian defense budget was US$22.8 billion, only 1.4 percent of GDP, while for 2021-2022 Australia’s consolidated defense budget is AU$44.6 billion (around US$32.4 billion), $10 billion more than Canada in real terms and just over 2 percent of GDP.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) encompasses around 107,000 total personnel, comprising 72,000 active troops and 35,000 reserves. With Australia having slightly more than half the population of Canada, total personnel in the Australian Defense Force compares very favorably at around 80,000, with 60,000 active troops and 20,000 reserves.

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has approximately 377 aircraft, including 62 F18 Classic Hornet fighters, some purchased secondhand recently from Australia. While part of the F-35 Lightning development consortium, Canada has not yet opted in to purchasing the F-35, for better or worse. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has a similar number of aircraft to the RCAF at over 300, but with much greater combat punch than the Canadians, including Super Hornets and F-35s. Unlike the RCAF, the RAAF has one of the most advanced electronic warfare, intelligence, surveillance, and command and control capabilities of any air force after the U.S. and U.K., and is also making major efforts towards autonomous aircraft and in the space domain.

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has 64 ships, including 12 aging frigates and four aging conventional submarines. It has no destroyers and no amphibious assault vessels. Canada is ordering up to 15 new frigates based on the British Type 26 Global Combat Ship, similar to the nine new Hunter-class frigates being built for Australia. By comparison, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has 50 ships, with more new ships and more up to date war-fighting capabilities than the Canadian fleet. These include eight ANZAC frigates, three Hobart-class destroyers, three amphibious assault ships (two Canberra and one Bay class), and six conventional submarines. Fourteen new Offshore Patrol Vessels are being built, and nine new Hunter-class frigates and a variety of other new vessels are on order. And now eight nuclear-powered submarines are to be developed for Australia through AUKUS.

The Canadian Army has limited armored mobility and no dedicated attack helicopters, while the Australian Army is expanding and updating its fleet of Abrams main battle tanks, adding new armored reconnaissance vehicles and infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery and various missile systems, and replacing its problematic European Tiger attack helicopters with the venerable U.S.-made Apache, among a range of other advanced capabilities.

Pacific Defense Arrangements: Canada ‘Missing in Action’

In addition to the above, perhaps the most startling difference is that Australia is extremely active in forming and participating in, and indeed driving, defense and security alliances, partnerships, and cooperative arrangements in the Indo-Pacific region. These include the recently announced AUKUS, the “Quad” with India, Japan, and the U.S.; the ANZUS Treaty with New Zealand and the U.S., which held its 70th anniversary in September 2021; and the Five Powers Defense Arrangement with Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the U.K., which obliges members to “consult” in the event of external threats against Malaysia and Singapore (but not to the other members). Australia is also strengthening bilateral defense relations with Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and others, including Fiji and other Pacific Island countries. Australia is also enhancing the latter through increased soft power via international development aid under the so-called Pacific Step-up.

By contrast, despite being a Pacific nation and being no less vulnerable to security threats in the Pacific as outlined above, Canada is notably “missing in action” from all of the above arrangements. Canada is also largely missing from the Pacific in terms of international development aid, with only $11.86 million spent in the Pacific Islands in 2019 compared to Australia’s $865 million, New Zealand’s $253 million, and China’s $169 million that year.

The last major Canadian effort in the region was the highly successful and much acclaimed Canada-South Pacific Ocean Development Program (C-SPOD), which ran from 1990 through 2004. The program assisted all 14 Pacific Island countries that are members of the Pacific Islands Forum with ocean governance, marine resource management, sustainable fisheries, and maritime industries. I had the pleasure of working with C-SPOD for two years on the maritime element, based out of Samoa. Canada’s pragmatic approach to development aid, which was more responsive to the needs and priorities of island countries than many other programs, is sorely missed in the region today. Canada’s standing and influence in the region are much diminished by its much reduced presence.

Canada does participate, with relatively small numbers of personnel (tens to hundreds), in Pacific-based multilateral exercises such as the U.S.-led biennial RIMPAC and the Australian-led biennial Exercise Talisman Sabre. In 2021 Canada joined the U.S.-led exercise Sea Dragon off Guam and undertakes occasional transits in Asian seas as part of broader freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS).

Since 2005, the CAF and the New Zealand Defense Force have run CANZEX (Canada New Zealand Exchange), a small program that enhances cooperation and interoperability in training, operations, and human resources. The CAF also runs the Military Training and Cooperation Program (MTCP) with a number of Asian countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, and South Korea, albeit with a focus on peace support operations and military staff training – mainly English courses – rather than high-end warfighting.

Originating in World War II, the ABCANZ Armies Program (America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) is aimed at optimizing interoperability and standardization between the armies, and there are similar “standardization” arrangements for the same countries’ air forces, navies, and military communications and technology sectors, all legacies of World War II.

However, Canada does not undertake these activities under any formal treaty or alliance agreements. Canada’s participation is operational and largely ad-hoc, based on “customary practice” and technical engagement. As outlined above, Canada’s defense treaty obligations are limited to NATO and NORAD, with nothing extending to the Indo-Pacific.

Given shared and common histories, values, and interests, from time to time various parties have called for Canada to join ANZUS (which would become CANZUS), and for all five of the core Anglosphere nations to form something like a CANZUKUS, expanding the Five Eyes intelligence arrangements into a more all-encompassing, treaty-based, military alliance with mutual defense obligations.

For various reasons such calls have not gained traction. This is due in part to the concentration of Canada’s population, industry, and government in the Atlantic-focused east, and a general lack of recognition among Canadians of their status, opportunities, and vulnerabilities as a Pacific nation. The generally low priority placed on defense investment by successive Canadian governments and an over-reliance on the U.S. umbrella have not helped, as exemplified by Canada’s relative military placing against smaller Australia as outlined above.

The announcement of AUKUS presents an opportunity to make another attempt to bring Canada more fully and formally into the joint Indo-Pacific security fold, perhaps as a member of a CAUKUS (a much better acronym than the awkward AUKUS), and also expanding ANZUS to become CANZUS or CANZUKUS. The benefits to all parties of having the added weight of a large democratic nation and developed economy like Canada join the alliances are obvious. Canada may not seek nuclear submarines as Australia is doing, but it will certainly benefit from the presence of Australia’s subs in the Pacific. Crewing those boats will be a huge challenge for Australia, and lateral recruitment from Canada, and New Zealand for that matter, could assist greatly in achieving the complements needed, while providing hugely valuable training and experience to personnel from those friendly countries. There are of course many other areas where Canada could contribute to and gain from CAUKUS, CANZUS and/or CANZUKUS.

It is high time for the Aussies, Kiwis, Yanks, and the Brits to urge our Canuck cousins to step up to the plate, and to get fully with us in the Indo-Pacific.