Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Anita Anand

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Anita Anand walk in front of a line of Canadian troops at Fort York Armoury on February 24, 2023. (Photo: Katherine KY Cheng / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: When Rhetoric Extends Beyond Reach


Canada is still on the outside looking in, even if it will be promoted to a strategic partnership with ASEAN next month.

ASEAN has finally granted the long-awaited status of a Strategic Partnership – its second-highest status of dialogue partnership – to Canada. On 13 July, the ASEAN-Canada Ministerial Meeting noted that Ottawa’s new status would be launched at the ASEAN-Canada Summit in September. However, Ottawa’s heavy emphasis on the threat posed by China could well put Canada at cross-purposes with ASEAN. In addition, Canada’s ambitions in the region appear to be outpacing the resources it can call.

The timing of ASEAN’s decisions coincided with the launch of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) in December 2022. The strategy sets out five key strategic objectives to promote peace and security, trade and investment (including supply chain resilience), people-to-people connectivity, sustainability, and the promotion of Canada as an active and engaged partner in the Indo-Pacific.

On the bright side, ASEAN has always appreciated Canada’s low-key but consistent support in areas like social development and capacity-building. ASEAN also looks favourably upon Canada’s support and cooperation under the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) as an assurance that ASEAN will remain in the driver’s seat in the regional architecture.

The real challenge for Ottawa, however, is whether its IPS is in sync with ASEAN’s position, primarily when it comes to the China challenge. In an increasingly crowded Indo-Pacific, it is unlikely that Canada would be on par with other regional powers, especially bigger players like Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. These four powers have already formed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) as an organising mechanism to manage the threat posed by China, among other things. Furthermore, the trilateral summit between the U.S., Japan and South Korea at Camp David on 18 August appears to be a new working coalition that is similar to the Quad.

ASEAN’s recognition of Canada’s contributions to the region does not mean that the bloc agrees with all of Canada’s actions in the Indo-Pacific. Other powers, such as Japan, Australia, and the U.S., had tabled their own Indo-Pacific strategies and underscored ASEAN centrality prior to Canada. However, these powers did not do so out of altruism. The Quad, for example, stresses the delivery of international public goods such as vaccines, climate change, and emerging technologies but the quartet is using such messaging as a cover for the actual goal of countering China.

The same logic could well apply to Canada’s actions but Ottawa has ratcheted up the China threat a notch or two, partly given its own challenges with Chinese spying activities on Canadian soil. While the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy mentioned China 13 times, Canada’s IPS mentioned China 52 times. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand highlighted that “China is an increasingly disruptive global power, that increasingly disregards international rules and norms”. Canada’s IPS also notes that Beijing’s “foreign interference and increasingly coercive treatment of other countries and economies have significant implications in the region”.

This will not sit well with ASEAN, which emphasises maintaining a cordial, cooperative relationship with Beijing.

Quad countries are careful to tamp down strident language and avoid singling out China by name. Quad leaders’ statements in 2022 and this year had nary a mention of the threat posed by China; instead, the leaders alluded to “destabilising or unilateral actions” that undermine the regional “status quo by force or coercion”. ASEAN will find it hard to completely align itself with Canada’s trumpeting of the China threat. The bloc will find it easier to work in tandem with the Indo-Pacific strategies of Japan, South Korea, the European Union and India, for example, as these are not explicitly aimed at containing China.

However, that does not mean that Canada cannot make a difference in this region.

Apart from the China issue, Canada’s rhetoric might extend beyond its reach in the Indo-Pacific. Granted, the IPS is backed by an investment of C$492.9 million to reinforce its military and naval presence and participate in regional military exercises. Given its commitments in Eastern Europe amid the perceived Russian threat, the Canadian Armed Forces has ordered all non-essential activities to end. All three branches of the CAF—the navy, air force and army—are short of personnel. Yet the IPS stresses a Canadian naval presence in the Indo-Pacific. This year, the deployment of two frigates to the region meant that Ottawa had to pull back a ship from European waters, something that has not occurred since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.

Last, Canada is not in any of the mini-laterals that matter in the Indo-Pacific: the Quad, the Australia-United Kingdom-U.S. trilateral nuclear power sharing arrangements (AUKUS), or the “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy repeatedly endorsed by all four Quad members since the first summit in March 2021. A Quad of four strands is not easily broken: these minilaterals work singly and collectively as force multipliers, with the goal of managing the China threat without being too overt about it.

However, that does not mean that Canada cannot make a difference in this region. It could be a Quad Plus partner to promote a rules-based order and to play more active roles in multilateral fora. It could even bring a new perspective such as the Feminist International Assistance Policy and can continue promoting the advancement of causes like women, peace and security, social protections, and education to supplement what other powers ex-ASEAN, more traditionally ensconced in hard power, often overlook.


William Choong is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Managing Editor at Fulcrum.

Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the Centre.