Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly unveiled the new strategy on Sunday, when she told reporters that China is an “increasingly disruptive global power” in a region where multiple countries are showing major economic growth.
“The Indo-Pacific is the fastest growing economic region of the world. By 2030, it will be home to two-thirds of the global middle class and by 2040, it will account for more than half of the global economy, Joly said.
“Every issue that matters to Canadians, our national security, our economic prosperity, democratic values, climate change or again human rights will be shaped by the relationship Canada has with Indo-Pacific countries.”
The strategy includes $2.3 billion in funding in the region over the next five years, all while strengthening security and intelligence networks, deploying additional military assets, investing in cybersecurity infrastructure and diversifying Canada’s trade opportunities in the region.
The plan is “a comprehensive one,” according to a former Canadian ambassador to China, and it sends a “tough” message to China, said Guy Saint-Jacques.
But he noted that a lot will remain to be seen in the “details on the implementation.”
Plan is 'long overdue' but experts are optimistic
Goldy Hyder, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada, said the strategy is a sign that “good things come to those who wait.”
“This is a good thing,” he said of the strategy, adding that it’s also “long overdue.”
One of the most important signals that the government is serious about the promises it laid out in the strategy is the amount of money Canada has earmarked to put the strategy in place, according to both Hyder and Saint-Jacques.
“What I’ve seen in there is content-rich, and it’s backed up by dollars. So the intentions are pure,” Hyder said.
The planned $2.3-billion funding over the next five years “confirms that the government is serious about implementing this strategy,” Saint-Jacques said.
Those billions will be invested immediately as a “down payment” to start implementing the strategy, Joly said. Some of the promises, including an extra frigate, could come with an additional hefty price tag.
If the government intends to procure a new frigate rather than repurpose one in the existing fleet, that purchase alone could cost Canada billions, based on previous procurement figures.
In addition to deploying military assets to the region, investing in domestic and regional cybersecurity infrastructure, and bolstering Canada’s contributions to the global intelligence alliances, the strategy plans to grow economic ties with India and in southeast Asia.
Existing ties with Japan and South Korea are also supposed to be further strengthened under the plan, and a new Indo-Pacific Trade Representative will be appointed to advance Canada’s relationship with the region.
“If all politics is local, so too is all business,” Hyder said of the new trade representative appointment.
“And so to have actual resources on the ground who understand how local markets work, what the nuances are, what the sensitivities are, what the right thing to do is versus the wrong thing to do is, frankly, saves dollars.”
The strategy also hopes to boost travel and immigration opportunities between Canada and the region, fight anti-Asian hate, bolster human rights supports, and build a cooperative climate change strategy.
“I’m very pleased with the strategy because I see it’s a comprehensive one,” Saint-Jacques said.
“It addresses military and security issues, development issues, environment and climate change, trade, of course, and geopolitical questions.”
Devil in the details?
While it’s one thing to get good ideas down on paper, it’s another to actually implement them — a reality that couched the optimism Hyder and Saint-Jacques expressed.
“I think what matters now a bit is we’re able to convert … those intentions into actions and those actions into actual achievements,” Hyder said.
Two key areas of the strategy also gave Saint-Jacques pause.
While Canada has signalled that it intends to better protect its sovereignty in the Arctic — particularly as China and Russia increasingly eye the region — the government will have to put its money where its mouth is in order to make that intention a reality.
“We will have to invest a lot more in terms of (the North American Aerospace Defence Command) NORAD, in terms of buying additional ships and planes to patrol the north,” Saint-Jacques said.
“This is something that will have to be addressed at some point.”
For Hyder, the strategy suggests the government has missed a big opportunity with respect to pushing for expanded market access for Canada’s liquid natural gas (LNG) supply.
“As someone who has been to Korea and Japan and other places and in the North Pacific, I will tell you that they are keen on getting our energy and particularly our LNG, and so I thought it was a huge miss,” Hyder said.
Canada’s LNG supply is not only helpful to push for decarbonization, Hyder said, but also to provide Canada with an economic advantage “at a time in which there may well be recessionary winds on the horizon.”
“So it’s a big miss and I think it’s something that needs to be asked and addressed,” Hyder said.
Opposition calls for action to match promises
Politicians are also calling on the government to release more specifics about the plan, as NDP MP Heather McPherson said on her way into question period on Monday.
When a reporter asked what’s missing from the strategy, she said: “the details.”
“What is that going to look like? How are we going to get there?” she wondered aloud.
“The Liberal government is great at saying the right things. We’re going to be watching very closely to make sure that they do the right things.”
The Conservatives have also already asked the government to prove it meant it when the strategy promised to challenge China on human rights issues.
In the Indo-Pacific strategy, the government pledges that “in areas of profound disagreement, we will challenge China, including when it engages in coercive behaviour — economic or otherwise — ignores human rights obligations or undermines our national security interests and those of partners in the region.”
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre cited this quote in question period on Monday as he asked the government to “indicate to Beijing” that the major protests in China against Beijing’s “COVID Zero” policies should be “allowed to go ahead” and “any crackdown should be resisted.”
The Liberal parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs replied that “protesters should be able to peacefully protest and share their views without fearing for their safety,” adding that Canada “will continue to follow the events very closely.”
At the same time, the strategy does not indicate that Canada is “decoupling economically from China,” Saint-Jacques said.
“The reality is that it’s an important market for our exporters,” he said.
Canadian exports to China totalled $28.84 billion last year, according to Statistics Canada customs data, accounting for over four per cent of all exports. Imports from China, meanwhile, totalled $85.67 billion, or 14 per cent of Canada’s intake.
However, the strategy is now providing a “choice” for Canadians to take their supply chains “elsewhere” and “develop new markets” with the government’s help.
Overall, the strategy shows a “radical change” in Canada’s approach to China, which for years had tried to pursue a free-trade deal with Beijing before ultimately shelving the proposal in response to China’s hardball negotiation tactics.
“I think there was no choice for Ottawa but to adopt a much firmer approach towards China,” Saint-Jacques said of the new approach.
“China can put aside international laws and norms when a country does something that it doesn’t like. We have seen also that Xi Jinping conducts a very aggressive and assertive foreign policy. … So I think for the government, it had to do something.”
The “big question,” Saint-Jacques said, is whether China will “want to play ball.”
“The message for China is a very tough one. We are telling China: ‘You are a bully. As long as you are acting as a bully, we will limit our engagement. We have no choice but to engage with you, but it will be much more limited,'” Saint-Jacques said.
“So I expect that maybe China will not want to engage too quickly, but we’ll have to wait.”
— with files from Global News’ Sean Boynton