Opening Remarks at HardTalk: Canada and the Asia Pacific, organized by the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University and the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute
Distinguished guests, professors, students, friends: Good morning. I am honoured to make brief remarks at the start of this conference on Canada and the Asia Pacific and acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional territory of the Anishinabeg/Algonquin peoples. I would like to thank the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute for inviting me, and to congratulate the organizers – in particular John Price, David Carment, and Wang Yanling – for putting together this very timely conference.
In the spirit of Stephen Sackur, I would like to pose three sets of issues for the “Hard Talk” that this conference is seeking to provoke.
The first has to do with nomenclature. The organizers have chosen “Asia Pacific” rather than “Indo Pacific” as the locus of discussion on Canada’s relations with the region. This at a time when our government is finalizing its “Indo-Pacific Strategy”. There is a logic to the organizers’ choice. Whereas the “Asia Pacific” concept is based on economic integration and cooperation among states on both sides of the Pacific Ocean and has institutional expression in the form of APEC and other trans-Pacific bodies, the idea of an “Indo Pacific” is fundamentally about great power politics and regional security.
There are some who argue that the point of an Indo-Pacific strategy is to articulate the importance of diversifying and expanding economic ties with a region that extends into South Asia. But it is not clear why a renewed focus on say India as a priority market would not be better articulated as an India strategy.
For that matter, it strikes me that a focus on any part of the Indo-Pacific would be more sensibly described as a strategy for that country or sub-region (say ASEAN), or even on a political-security conundrum such as the Korean peninsula or the Taiwan straits.
The Indo-Pacific concept seeks to fuse two sub-regions (South Asia and East Asia) where economic integration is nascent at best. It also places more emphasis on political/security issues than on trade, investment and economic cooperation. Indeed, the US Indo-Pacific strategy is notable for its absence of market access provisions for countries in the Indo-Pacific. If anything, policy measures contained in the 2022 “Inflation Reduction Act” of the United States have resulted in new protectionist barriers against some “like-minded” Indo-Pacific partners, notably Korea. For its part, India has explicitly rejected participation in the trade pillar of the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — suggesting that Delhi has little interest in Indo-Pacific window dressing.
The issue is not whether India is a promising market and an emerging economic powerhouse – which it is. Since the early 90s when Delhi embarked on a program of liberalization, its trading partners have periodically turned their attention to the Indian market and attempted free trade negotiations as well as trade and investment promotion more generally. None of these efforts were contingent on an “Indo-Pacific” strategy and the fact that few countries have successfully concluded trade agreements with India is more about Delhi’s outlook on trade policy than other countries not having an outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
By connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans in one concept, proponents of an Indo-Pacific strategy are explicitly raising a set of maritime security considerations that have more to do with geopolitics than economic integration. It is not a coincidence that the four countries most enthusiastic about the Indo-Pacific concept are themselves part of a mini-lateral grouping known as the Quad and are also the countries most active in pursuing maritime security as part of their Indo-Pacific strategies. Already, we are hearing calls for Canada to join the Quad, as part of our own Indo-Pacific strategy. If we did, I guess that would turn the Quad into the Pentagon, which pretty much says it all.
The most glaring omission in many discussions about Indo-Pacific strategies to date is in the treatment of the largest and most important economy in the region, which is of course China. Any Indo-Pacific strategy which does not put China at the center of prospects for the future prosperity of the region, or which frames China as the reason for a geo-strategic concept such as the Indo-Pacific, is in effect a strategy of containment against China. Conversely, a strategy that properly addresses the challenge of the PRC as an increasingly authoritarian and coercive power in the region, in the context of great power competition with the United States, does not need the Indo-Pacific as an analytic frame.
I am not arguing against the need for Canada to have an Indo-Pacific strategy. Indeed, many of the Asian countries we are hoping to build stronger ties with – especially in Southeast Asia – are waiting to see if our IPS is a statement of genuine interest in and commitment to the region, rather than an expression of solidarity with the United States in its geo-strategic rivalry with China. Despite recent impressive diplomatic efforts led by our industry, trade and foreign ministers, a poorly conceived Indo-Pacific Strategy could end up further setting back our interests in region.
Let me move to my next point, which is that the way we think about Asia affects how we think about Asian Canadians. I am glad that this conference has a session to discuss the impact of foreign policy on racism in Canada. There is widespread recognition of the rise in anti-Asian racism in the last four years or so and many anti-racism champions, including the federal government, universities, and businesses, have condemned acts of prejudice and hate against Asian Canadians.
What is extraordinary, however, is that so many of these anti-racism voices fail to identify the single most important factor for the rise in prejudice and antagonism towards Asian Canadians in recent years, which is anti-China sentiment and the reflex among many to pigeonhole Chinese Canadians as panda huggers or dragon slayers.
Let me be clear. It is not racist to be critical of the People’s Republic of China or the Chinese Communist Party. But anti-China sentiment has emboldened race supremacists and xenophobes to act out their prejudices – sometimes through violence, whether online and in person. Worse, it has provided cover for Canadians not normally inclined to racist behavior to make simplifying (and stigmatizing) assumptions about their fellow citizens (usually of Chinese descent) because of where they come from and the positions they take. Like pinning the problem of housing unaffordability on people with last names that are spelled in the fashion of mainland China. Or accusing voters who reject candidates with hardline positions on China as dupes or agents of the Chinese Communist Party. And, in my case (and I am not even from the PRC), being told I am living in the wrong country because of my views on Canada China relations.
The great danger in all of this is not that we don’t recognize the rise in Anti-Asian hate and want to do something about it; rather it is that we are unable to identify the source of this racism or consciously choose to ignore it. An Indo-Pacific strategy that buys into the logic of containment (which translates into “We want China to fail”) will only exacerbate tensions in the Canadian polity that lead to racism against Chinese and other Asian Canadians.
Whether we like it or not, the geopolitical contest between the US and China will be decades long, which means our positioning in this contest will determine for many years ahead not only the economic and security prospects for Canada, but also the political and social context for how ethnic Chinese in Canada are cast.
Let me close on a more optimistic note. It is that Canada’s renewed attention to Asia, even if it is framed as the Indo-Pacific, could be an opportunity to foster a greater appreciation for the fact that Canada is a Pacific nation and that we need to strengthen our credentials with all countries on the other side of the ocean.
The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada conducts national opinion polls from time to time and one question it has asked repeatedly is as follows “Is Canada a part of the Asia Pacific region”. The last time I am aware this question was posed was in 2020, and the percentage of Canadians who said “yes” was a mere 38%. Now if this was a question in a geography examination, 62% of Canadians would flunk. The problem here though is not ignorance, since everyone knows Canada has a Pacific coast. Rather, it is a problem of psychology or what might be described as a faulty mental map.
Many Canadians simply cannot or will not conceive of a Pacific orientation in the way that we naturally associate with the North Atlantic and the countries on the other side of that ocean. We are much more forgiving about the idiosyncrasies and failures of governance and social dysfunction in our traditional partners on both sides of the Atlantic than we are about perceived deficits in Asia.
An Indo-Pacific strategy that on the one hand avoids the dangers of bloc building and containment, and on the other invests in education, scholarship, capacity building and exchanges with Asian counterparts will establish Canada’s credentials not as a scolding uncle or opportunistic passerby, but as a relative newcomer to the neighbourhood who is there to stay.
I hope this conference orients us in that direction and look forward to the sessions that follow. Congratulations again to the organizers and all speakers. Let the hard talking begin!