In 2019, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau stood beside Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in Ottawa and called for greater Canadian-Japanese cooperation in the “Indo-Pacific.” Hailed in the Canadian media at the time as a sign of Canadian middle-power diplomacy, Trudeau’s comments left many in government and academic circles scratching their heads. Had Canada adopted an Indo-Pacific strategy toward Asia? Was the Prime Minister speaking off the cuff – perhaps inadvertently using Japan’s preferred nomenclature around the Asian region’s strategic environment – or was he purposefully and tactically aligning Canada’s strategic posture in Asia with the Abe government’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision? Did he understand that in adopting an Indo-Pacific framework for Canada’s foreign policy approach to Asia he was positioning his country to be a part of a controversial US-led strategy that many Asian states viewed as anti-Chinese in spirit and practice?

For some, such considerations were inconsequential. Canada should of course align its Asia-directed foreign and security policies with the United States and Japan – indeed, with any Western nation that shared Canada’s values with respect to the international rule of law and a liberal “rules-based order.” At the time of Trudeau’s comments, Canada was, after all, in the midst of a confrontation with the People’s Republic of China over Canada’s decision to detain Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese firm Huawei and a Chinese corporate celebrity, and China’s reciprocal arrest of two Canadian citizens working in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. In the face of increased Chinese pressure and growing uncertainty in Asia, surely Canada would want to work with the United States and other Western nations to secure its interests in the region?

For others, however, the prospect of Canadian alignment along an Indo-Pacific ideal was less than appealing. Far from being a workable vision of a future Asian order, some analysts argued, the Indo-Pacific ideal was instead a US-led, Defense Department-driven attempt to preserve American predominance over Asia’s institutions. The Trump administration, in particular, articulated its Indo-Pacific vision in largely antagonistic, militaristic terms, with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper pledging in a 2020 speech in Hawaii that the United States would “not cede an inch” of Asia to any other state. Whatever Canada might gain from an Indo-Pacific alignment, these analysts warned, it equally stood to lose if it aligned itself with a consortium of states committed to self-preservation over regional stability.

For Canada, then, there seemed to be no clear answer in 2019 – or in 2020, 2021, or 2022 – as to the country’s most effective approach to the Asia-Pacific, a region that Canadian policy-makers and business-people alike understood as full of opportunity but also as inherently difficult to navigate. Adding to this uncertainty was a hardening schism within the Canadian policy community over the approach Ottawa should take toward China, fostered in large part by commentary in the Globe and Mail that sought to frame those advocating Canada-China engagement as “naïve” or “soft on China” and those calling for Canada to adopt a harder line toward Beijing as “realists.” Mirroring the groupthink in the United States over China’s role in Asia and adopting the US-based narrative that Asia’s liberal order was under threat, Canada’s policy writers entered a period of analytical malaise at exactly the time when Ottawa most needed strategic creativity.

The heart of the matter

Part of Canada’s challenge in shaping a domestic approach to the Asia-Pacific is the lack of sophisticated domestic debate around the region’s developing dynamics, the primary result of Canadian policy analysts’ continued reliance on Western narratives and paradigms when conceptualizing the Asian region. Rather than engaging in critical analysis of Asia’s security, governance, or economic trends – up to and including critique of Western assumptions toward the region – Canadian analysts instead almost uniformly frame their regional analysis within prescribed Western world views, many of which are either inherently biased or outright incorrect. The shared belief among Canadian scholars on Asia that the country’s membership in the G7 gives it a middle-power advantage in the region, for instance, is based on the mistaken belief that Asian states continue to look to Western economies as the standard-bearers for international governance norms. Similarly, the nearly universal belief among Canadian policy writers that the Chinese Communist Party is illiberal, unstable, and repressive undermines the basis for a more robust – indeed, informed – Canadian policy toward China.

Not only does this parochial world view set a false starting point for Canadian policy development, but it also contributes to an ossification of dialogue in Canada around Asia’s primary strategic dynamics. Canadian advocacy for alignment with the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy is a case in point, as those pushing for it do so with little, if any, reference to the strategy’s broader strategic context. In debating whether or not Canada should align with the United States, or Japan, or indeed any Western democratic state around an Asia-Pacific strategy, for instance, Canadian analysts make broad, often incorrect, assumptions about the nature of contemporary Asian order, including the region’s existing and emerging institutions, its great power dynamics, its values and norms, and, most consequentially, Canada’s place within the region. More fundamentally, while an informed Canadian approach to Asia must necessarily address sensitive topics such as which states get to decide what constitutes Asian order, whether and to what degree China has a legitimate right to influence its own geographic region, and whether non-democratic states have the same legitimacy with respect to the international system, international institutions, and international mores, few Canadian policy analysts ever reference these issues in their writing.

Omnidirectional diplomacy
and strategic integration

For Canada, conceptualizing and operationalizing a successful strategy toward Asia means navigating these competing narratives and dynamics to the extent that it can maximize its national interests in the region. As argued throughout this book, Canada cannot achieve this outcome through uncritical alignment with its traditional Western partners, as Western narratives toward Asia are largely biased and at times chauvinistic. Views from Brussels, Canberra, London, Paris, and Washington, far from representing regional dynamics and respecting regional developments, are too often grounded in Western-centric, neocolonial visions of global order and Western leadership and cannot offer Canada a sustainable, inclusive framework on which to build its own national strategy toward Asia. Rather, Ottawa must critically evaluate regional narratives on Asian order to find the correct path for Canada to follow. Through this approach, Canada can effect a strategic policy of omnidirectional diplomacy, avoiding ideological alignment for the sake of informed, non-ideologically based engagement.

Concurrently, Canada must seek concrete opportunities to work with regional actors and within regional networks to establish tangible relations with Asian states and actors and to advance its national interests and values through dialogue and cooperation. Central to this proposition is the need to understand more fully Asia’s institutional architecture, primarily those ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and non-ASEAN institutions that enable Canada to work on issues of national priority. Through this policy of strategic integration, Canada can best position itself for non-ideological engagement, thereby raising its influence throughout the Asia-Pacific on issues of ideological importance to the Canadian people, such as human rights, climate change, and gender equality. 

On omnidirectional diplomacy

There are many reasons why Canada would align its policy with that of Western states in Asia. In addition to Canada’s having shared values with states like Australia and France, as well as shared interests with the European Union and the United States, these Western actors have all articulated a strategic approach to Asia, or the Indo-Pacific, based on these values and interests that Ottawa could adopt and implement with little effort. For Canadian policy-makers and strategic analysts, the common appeal from Western states to support the “rules-based order” is attractive as it reinforces their perception of Canada as a liberal state committed to international rule and international order and provides them with a means to amplify Canada’s agency and voice on international issues. Further, the appeal among Canadian policy-makers in particular for conceptual and operational alignment toward Asia will grow as more and more Western states coordinate their activities through Western-oriented institutions such as the G7, NATO, AUKUS, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), and Western narratives toward Asia increasingly cast the region’s order as being under threat from authoritarianism.

The pressure for Western alignment will increase even more as the Canadian public’s views on the region harden, particularly with respect to Canada-China relations. Recent polls from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada suggest, for instance, that the Canadian public holds Beijing with as little regard as they do North Korea, and that they prefer that their government representatives deprioritize China’s interests and reprioritize Canada’s values when approaching Asia. Within Canada, there is a further predilection for cooperation with like-minded states, or Western state actors.

While the Trump administration’s “America First” policy had the effect in Canada of raising questions among government officials and scholars over whether Canada and the United States are indeed like-minded with respect to their national and foreign policy values, the necessity for Canadian policy analysts to question Canada’s relations with its most important Western partner quickly dissipated under the Biden administration. Indeed, calls within Canada for alignment with the Biden administration toward China have actually arisen as President Biden has used international forums to frame China as the West’s predominant, if not existential, challenge and to call for Western states to align against Beijing around their shared values and US leadership.

Suffice it to say that Canada’s natural inclination will continue to be alignment with Western states in its approach to Asia, particularly with the United States on matters related to governance, security, and human rights. As this book will demonstrate, however, wholesale Canadian alignment with the United States, or with any coalition of Western states, will come with significant costs as Western narratives and strategic assumptions toward Asia are not representative of regional views, and any state that fails to take regional perspectives into consideration will inevitably find regional states and institutions less interested in engagement.

To avoid a scenario where Canada’s national interests are harmed through overreliance on Western states’ approaches to Asia, Ottawa must critically examine its assumptions toward the region with the intent of decoding regional signals on issues of strategic importance. The critical evaluation of Western narratives on Asia is the necessary starting point, as many of the assumptions informing Western views of Asia do not stand up to scrutiny when held against regional dialogue, perceptions, or values. Concurrently, Canadian policy-makers and analysts must spend the time and effort to understand regional narratives regarding Asia’s strategic environment. Doing so will enable Ottawa to approach the region from an analytical and conceptual position of strength, not from one based on chauvinistic, antiquated views of Western hegemony and Asian state subordination. 

The end state of this approach is not complete strategic decoupling from Western states, particularly the United States. Canada’s strategic interests are too intertwined with those of the United States for us to realistically expect it to ignore Washington’s policy dialogues and processes for the sake of an entirely autonomous approach to Asia. Ottawa will always need to take US perspectives into account in its own policy deliberations, if for no reason other than the United States’ geographic proximity and its direct impact on Canadian national interests through its proximity and power. Canada will also always find partnership in Western institutions such as the G7 and NATO to be force multipliers enabling it to exercise global agency disproportionate to its actual material and ideological strengths. Further, Canada is a quintessential Western state in its identity, governance, and values and will always seek to lead in these areas where it can – and rightfully so.

Canada should, rather, seek to establish equidistance between its natural Western orientation and the realities within the Asian region, particularly when such equidistance provides it greater opportunities to engage on issues such as human rights, gender equality, and climate change that are so central to it own priorities. Canada need not compromise its own values to do so. Indeed, in approaching the region through a position of humility and compromise, Canada can demonstrate to Asian states – including China – that it is committed to inclusivity and consultation.

What does a policy of omnidirectional diplomacy look like in practice? First, it requires a basis of strategic non-alignment, particularly around Western concepts such as the Indo-Pacific, which have become increasingly aligned with Western hegemonic ideals such as order preservation, Western leadership, and Western-directed security partnerships. Regional states are rightfully wary of these concepts, seeing the Indo-Pacific concept in largely confrontational, anti-Chinese terms. Canada should avoid aligning its foreign and security policies toward Asia with these Indo-Pacific strategies, particularly as they remain controversial throughout the region.

Second, Canada must work to understand and internalize regional perceptions of Asia’s strategic environment, especially when these perceptions challenge Canada’s assumptions toward the region. This book will identify many such instances and can therefore serve as a starting point for critical analysis of Canada’s foreign policy approach to Asia. It alone cannot, however, serve as a strategic master plan toward the region. Rather, Canadian policy-makers must allocate resources to understand and respond better to Asia’s changing environment and remain adaptive to shifts in regional perspectives and priorities, realizing all the while that regional dynamics shift as states’ interests evolve.

Third, Canada must use this knowledge of regional dynamics to formulate tactical and operational relations in Asia that best enable it to advance its national interests in the region. 

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