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COMMENTARY: Canada should follow Australia’s example in defence, foreign policy

Former Australian Prime Minister says there is a way out of the Canada-China spat over Meng Wanzhou
Former Australian Prime Minister says there is a way out of the Canada-China spat over Meng Wanzhou

Those who follow developments in the Indo-Pacific often claim that Australia has a far more robust security posture there than Canada because of geographic necessity.

The argument is that Australia must be especially vigilant because China is closer to it than Canada is to China. That perception may partially explain why Australia spends nearly twice as much per capita on defence as Canada does with little public discussion Down Under, let alone complaint.

But here’s the thing. It depends where you start measuring from, of course, but the idea that Australia is physically closer to China is hokum. By the most obvious measure, Vancouver is 435 kilometres closer to Beijing (actual distance 8,508 km) than Beijing is to Sydney (8,943 km). By another measure, Sydney is only 1,000 km closer to Shanghai than Vancouver is.

READ MORE: China warns citizens travelling to Canada to exercise caution, citing ‘violent actions’

Mind you, it must also be said that Australia is far more reliant than Canada on trade moving through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. Canada has many more shipping lanes to choose from.

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Despite their similarly resource-oriented export economies, extreme climates and thin populations, there are startling differences in how Canada and Australia have tackled the security challenges of this century.

The standard line from Ottawa these days is that the Canadian government cannot possibly consider any other issue at the moment because the government’s entire focus is on coronavirus. Yet faced with the same lethal disease and the horrendous economic fallout and deficits that it’s triggered, Australia has found time to address alarming security concerns in the western Pacific.

Pushing the COVID-19 calamity aside for a moment, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared last week that because it was “a more dangerous world,” his country intended to increase defence spending by as much as 40 per cent, or a whopping $255 billion over the next decade. The money will pay for submarines, greatly improved cyber capabilities, and the establishment of military partnerships with smaller nations in the western Pacific, which are constantly bullied by China.

Australia suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong, extends visas to citizens
Australia suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong, extends visas to citizens

The Canadian government has often seemed paralyzed by the COVID-19 crisis and China’s kidnappings of the Two Michaels and has been slow to react to the rapidly changing security environment. This includes not yet banning Huawei’s G5 cellular network, as Australia has done. Nor has Ottawa indicated anything about the future of defence spending in an era when Canada’s national debt has now ballooned to more than $1 trillion.

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Faced with similar public health and economic challenges as Canada, Australian diplomats, generals and admirals have recently increased military and trade ties with India and are completing a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Japan that affords troops from the two countries legal protections and presupposes that they will collaborate more closely with each other in the future. Canberra also inked a deal with Tokyo last week to collaborate on war-fighting in the space domain and closer military ties.

Despite complaints of “gross interference” in China’s internal affairs by Beijing’s foreign ministry, Australia has also agreed to let about 14,000 visitors from Hong Kong extend their visas by five years and will offer an accelerated path for Chinese students to obtain Australian citizenship.

READ MORE: Australia suspends Hong Kong extradition deal, offers pathway to residency

Perhaps most alarming from Beijing’s point-of-view, the Quad intelligence group, which includes Australia, Japan, India and the U.S., could be about to add a military dimension. Navies from all four countries are expected to take part in joint naval exercises soon in the Indian Ocean.

Even before announcing a huge increase, defence spending was already at 1.9 per cent of Australia’s GDP. The defence budget in Canada has remained static near 1 per cent for years, despite a pledge to NATO six years ago by former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, and repeated several times since by current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that defence spending would soar to 2 per cent.

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As it is, the Australian Defence Force spends about $15 billion a year more on defence than Canada does. That money buys a lot of kit and capability. The ADF has two new fleets of frontline fighter jets, the Super Hornet and the F-35, has attack helicopters and new maritime surveillance aircraft, is building a dozen French-designed attack submarines, and already has two huge, new assault ships and other new warships.

The Canadian Armed Forces are a very poor second to Australia with 40-year old CF-18 fighter jets and surveillance aircraft, 30-year old submarines that seldom put to sea and no assault ships or attack helicopters.

China warns it may take further actions in response to Australia suspending Hong Kong extradition treaty
China warns it may take further actions in response to Australia suspending Hong Kong extradition treaty

Aside from the red herring of geographic proximity, there are other factors that account for the stark differences in how Australia and Canada regard defence spending and the threat posed by an ascendant China. Many Canadians believe that the U.S. will protect them so do not see why should they pay more for their own defence.

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Australia also has a longstanding all-party consensus that national security is a top priority. The two main political parties in Canada regard procurement as football to be kicked around. Neither of them has a declared foreign policy.

A cultural contrast is that Canadians have bought into a peacekeeping myth that has never really been true and is certainly not true today, while largely ignoring the wars its troops fought with great distinction in. Australians remain far more focused on recalling what their troops did in the Boer War, the two World Wars and Korea.

READ MORE: Ottawa likely to follow U.S., U.K. national security bans of Huawei, experts say

As well as finally working on some joint defence procurement projects, Canada and Australia should collaborate with each other and other western nations to prevent China from playing them off against each other in trade. For example, Canadian farmers recently grabbed Australia’s share of the barley market after China banned Australian barley in response to Canberra’s demand for an independent investigation into what Beijing knew and when about COVID-19. The Australians did the same in reverse when Canadian canola was banned by China.

Australia has moved to protect what it regards as its national interests by calling out China on human rights and spending much more on defence with little apparent fear as to how China might retaliate. Ottawa has not yet articulated what its interests are and acts as if it is scared at how China might respond if it takes a tougher stance.

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What must be acknowledged in Ottawa is that the coronavirus has not caused China to abandon or even pause for a moment in pursuit of its goal of shaping a new world order not only in the western Pacific but wherever it can.

Australia is seriously upping its game in response. Canada remains silent.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas