Should Russia’s outreach in Indo-Pacific be a ‘wake-up call’ for Canada?

Click to play video: 'Putin, Kim Jong Un solidify Russia-North Korea alliance with strongest-ever treaty'
Putin, Kim Jong Un solidify Russia-North Korea alliance with strongest-ever treaty
WATCH: Putin, Kim Jong Un solidify Russia-North Korea alliance with strongest-ever treaty – Jun 19, 2024

Russia’s efforts to strengthen relations with allies in the Indo-Pacific should serve as a “wake-up call” to Canada that China is not the only great power threatening security in the region, foreign policy analysts warn.

Russian President Vladimir Putin raised eyebrows last week by travelling to North Korea and Vietnam and signing multiple agreements with both countries, including a mutual defence pact with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Putin floated the possibility of sending weapons to Pyongyang in response to NATO’s support for Ukraine, but also spoke of “deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam” while speaking to reporters in Hanoi on Thursday as his Asian tour wrapped up.

Those comments have set off alarm bells in the United States, which is seeking to strengthen its relationships with Indo-Pacific allies like Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries — including Vietnam — to counter China’s influence.

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Those same alarms should also be ringing in Ottawa as it pursues its own strategy, experts say.

“It should be a wake-up call for the Canadian government,” said Balkan Devlen, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

“We could learn quite a bit from both Japanese and South Korean allies about the connectivity and the threat that Russia actually poses not only in Europe, but also potentially … to our Indo-Pacific friends and allies.”

Click to play video: 'Putin signs energy, health deals with Vietnam PM in mission to bolster ties with Asia'
Putin signs energy, health deals with Vietnam PM in mission to bolster ties with Asia

The U.S., Japan and South Korea jointly condemned the Russia-North Korea pact in a statement Sunday, saying the agreement “should be of grave concern to anyone with an interest in maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, upholding the global non-proliferation regime, and supporting the people of Ukraine” against Russia’s invasion.

Canada checks all of those boxes, analysts say, including through the Canadian military’s leading role in monitoring the enforcement of United Nations sanctions on North Korea with Operation Neon.

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“We have skin in the game,” said Vina Nadjibulla, vice-president of research and strategy at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Ottawa has yet to make a public statement on Russia’s agreements with North Korea and Vietnam. A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada reiterated it condemns Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s violations of international law.

“Canada remains committed to a rules-based international order, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the upholding of international norms, values which guide our Indo-Pacific Strategy,” James Wanki said in an email.

“We will continue to work with our international partners to promote these principles and support initiatives that foster stability, security, and sustainable development across the world.”

Launched in November 2022, Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy aims to boost trade and diplomatic ties with East Asian partners, as well as shore up defence and cybersecurity investments. All of this is aimed at deterring China from expanding its grasp in the region while maintaining strategic cooperation with Beijing.

But Russia, despite its reach into the Indo-Pacific, is not mentioned once within either country’s strategies, which Devlen says is “misguided.”

“It’s quite befuddling to me that there is not a single mention of Russia as a Pacific power,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Russia’s Vladimir Putin meets with Kim Jong Un in North Korea'
Russia’s Vladimir Putin meets with Kim Jong Un in North Korea

Putin has sought to expand Russia’s economic footprint across Asia since at least 2014 to counter the West, said Jeff Reeves, a senior Washington fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy.

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Moscow’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific dates back even earlier, he added, and has worked with China, Singapore and others as it pursues its push into the Arctic — a critical threat to Canada’s national security.

“This is not a surprise,” Reeves told Global News, speaking of Russia’s latest outreach. “Russia has been an Asia-Pacific actor in meaningful ways for the last 15 years.”

The sheer size of Russia means its invasion of Ukraine has had ripple effects beyond Europe, with major Indo-Pacific players like Japan and South Korea also fearing for their security.

Both countries, which have had territorial disputes with Russia in the past, have aided Ukraine in differing ways and laid sanctions on Moscow.

A South Korean national security advisor even suggested last week the country will reconsider its long-standing opposition to sending military aid to Ukraine in response to the Russia-North Korea pact.

Putin warned that would be a “very big mistake” and that he wasn’t ruling out sending weapons to North Korea. U.S. and NATO officials have cautioned Moscow could begin assisting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as part of the new pact.

“It adds an element of unpredictability and chaos,” Nadjibulla said, calling the deepening Russia-North Korea alliance an “inflection point.”

“It basically collapses the Indo-Pacific theatre with the European theatre … so the two are now really linked together.”

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Why does Vietnam matter?

Vietnam is Canada’s largest trading partner among ASEAN members, with bilateral trade between the two nations valued at $14 billion, according to International Trade Minister Mary Ng’s office. That’s more than double the amount of trade five years ago.

Ng travelled to Vietnam in March as part of a Team Canada trade mission that the government says is a “key initiative” of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Click to play video: 'APEC 2023: Businesses looking to expand in Asia-Pacific region want ‘predictable’ environment, Ng says'
APEC 2023: Businesses looking to expand in Asia-Pacific region want ‘predictable’ environment, Ng says

The United States, which is Vietnam’s top export market, responded to Putin’s Hanoi visit by dispatching its top diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Kritenbrink, to the country to stress Washington’s commitment to a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. State Department said Thursday.

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Kritenbrink told reporters Saturday during his visit to Hanoi that “the U.S.-Vietnam partnership has never been stronger.”

Russia and Vietnam signed agreements on issues including energy, underlining Moscow’s pivot to Asia after the West imposed sanctions on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the Biden administration expects Vietnam to not get involved in the Ukraine war, and will focus on continuing to “deepen” and “improve” relations with Hanoi.

Vietnam remains a strategic partner in the region not just for Canada and the U.S., but other major powers including China and India, analysts say. That’s prompted Hanoi to engage in what’s known as “bamboo diplomacy,” making sure not to be seen as taking sides in global disputes.

Hanoi is also waiting on the U.S. Commerce Department to decide by late July whether to elevate Vietnam to market-economy status, which would further open up trade opportunities between the two nations. Canada and several other countries already recognize Vietnam as a market economy.

Putin laid the groundwork for his increased outreach in Asia in the joint statement on a deepened Russia-China partnership signed with Chinese President Xi Jinping in May.

That evolving relationship, and the increasing impacts of the war in Ukraine on global power dynamics, should spur Canada and its allies to rethink their strategies in the Indo-Pacific, analysts warn.

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“A lot has happened since 2022,” Reeves said. “Some of the assumptions we had at the time, it would be prudent for us to revisit.”

— with files from Reuters

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