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Strengthening the China-Canada Military Relationship: Will Canada Follow Through?

Sep 16 , 2013
  • Hugh Stephens

    Distinguished Fellow, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

Ever since the Conservative government of Stephen Harper decided, about five years ago, to focus more on practical ways to build the bilateral relationship, Canada-China relations have improved across the board. These include trade, investment, tourism (Canada was one of the last major countries to enjoy “approved destination status” making it easier for Chinese tourists to book group travel), culture and education, and, not least, military relations. Canada has even been trusted to provide ten years of custody to two of China’s most sacred symbols, the pandas.

In the military sphere, a good start has been made in rebuilding a stronger relationship but as in other areas of Canada’s reborn interest in China, a sustained and strategic approach will be required if recent efforts are to have any measurable impact. Given the current budget and logistical challenges facing the Canadian Forces, some tough choices will have to be made if Canada is going to add a credible military component to the range of its relations with China.  The turnaround in Canada’s approach to China was already starting before the much ballyhooed US pivot to Asia but the US decision has had the effect of accelerating Canadian interest in China and in Asia generally.  Military relations with China have been moved up a notch with recent high level visits, and more planned. However, just as in other areas of Canada’s engagement with Asia, this positive start needs to be sustained with a strategic plan and dedicated resources. If such a plan is in place, it is not yet publicly evident.

In considering where Canada and China might further develop their military relationship, a key factor has to be the nature and capacity of Canada’s military establishment. Canada has a small but highly professional military, (about 68,000 all ranks, from all three services) with expertise in niche areas, but it faces major challenges. The Royal Canadian Navy (the “Royal” was restored to the naval and air elements of the Canadian forces this year, 45 years after the Canadian military ditched many of its historical symbolic associations with the Crown) has just 8,500 personnel and about 20 combat vessels, yet is tasked to exercise sovereignty over three coastlines and is facing major procurement challenges with regard to replacement of its 40 year old supply ships, plus new combat vessels. The RCAF is facing its own procurement issues as it struggles to replace its aging CF18s with the proposed option, the F-35, being highly controversial politically because of cost overruns. The Army is still coming out from under the strain of a lengthy deployment in Afghanistan, which severely stretched its capabilities. The Arctic is an important area where the Canadian military presence is weak and needs to be strengthened as global warming adds to the strategic importance of Arctic sea lanes. And to top things off, the government has declared that in the post-Afghanistan era, the Forces are to find significant savings to contribute to a promised balanced budget by 2015. The reductions are in the order of 12% of a $20 billion budget. Add to the mix the need to establish a credible program of military engagement with China and to project some form of military presence in Asia, and policy planners and military leaders face real challenges and tough choices.

Canada has had military-to-military dialogue with China ever since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1970. The PLA has a military presence in Ottawa and a Canadian Forces attaché is based in Beijing. But that is pro-forma. There have also been occasional naval visits as Canadian ships en-route to deployment in the Gulf stopped off to show the flag in Shanghai and other Chinese ports and PLA navy ships have made sporadic visits to Canada’s west coast naval base at Esquimalt, BC. Things started to move in March 2012 when then Chief of the Defence Staff General Walt Natynczyk visited China and met with General Guo Boxiong, the most senior general in the PLA and number two in the Central Military Commission. General Natynczyk visited operational bases for the three services and reached a general agreement that Canada and China should explore cooperation through junior officer exchanges, winter training and humanitarian and disaster relief exercises. These are all fruitful areas for cooperation and speak to capabilities where Canada has some expertise to offer China. However, a communique is just a beginning and if a meaningful military strand is to be added to the fibre of the bilateral relationship, this will require some concrete deliverables. There is little evidence of such deliverables to date.

The potential for stronger military relations between Canada and China is linked to Canada’s ability and willingness to focus more effort on building relations with Asia generally. Canada’s traditional NATO-centric focus needs to be matched with a greater commitment in the Pacific (and Arctic). Canada has stepped up its diplomatic and trade efforts in Asia (although a latecomer, Canada is now part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, and is negotiating a bilateral FTA with Japan) and has expressed interest in joining the East Asia Summit (EAS). With regard to the EAS, the reaction of Asian leaders has been that Canadian membership would be premature until such time as Canada establishes a consistent track record of commitment to and engagement with the region.

The same is true for the pre-eminent military forum, the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+), a forum established in 2006 that groups the ASEAN defense ministers along with those of Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, India, Russia, South Korea and the US—in effect the same composition as the EAS. Former Defence Minister Peter MacKay (MacKay was moved to the Justice portfolio in July of this year) who since 2011 has been attending the Shangri-la Dialogue, an informal meeting of defence officials held annually in Singapore, indicated this year that Canada wished to become a member of the ADMM+ but that suggestion, for now, has been politely declined. A strengthened military relationship between Canada and China would go some way to help establish Canada’s track record with regard to a military presence in Asia. Following his meetings in Singapore, MacKay went on to visit China and met with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan, signing a broad cooperation agreement that will lay the groundwork for improved cooperation but will, at the same time, further raise expectations. MacKay’s visit was reciprocated by a very recent unpublicized visit to Canada by General Chang at the end of August.

With the US military reaching out to establish a better military-to-military dialogue with China, for example by including China in the well-established semi-annual RIMPAC naval exercises (in which Canada and a number of other countries also participate), Canada’s initiatives should have a positive impact on US-China military relations. Canada and the US have longstanding military cooperation agreements and are NATO allies. They cooperate on NORAD defense and maritime surveillance. While there are occasional military issues where the two countries do not see eye-to-eye (for example on whether the Arctic sea lanes are internal waters, as Canada claims, or are international waters, the view of the US), for the most part they are in synch. It can only be to the advantage of the US to have a close ally such as Canada making the effort to strengthen military relations with Beijing. It will introduce a new dynamic and add another channel for dialogue and exchange of information, not that Canada is likely to learn anything that would not be available to the Pentagon. Canada, for its part, will be happy to contribute to stability in the Pacific by playing its part in fostering dialogue with the Chinese military, although it will be careful not to be seen to be doing the bidding of the US and will be wary of being cast in any “deputy sheriff” role, an epithet sometimes conferred on Australia.

With both sides having recently exchanged high level visits, the next steps are important. Will Canadian military leaders dig deep and find resources to put some flesh on the bones of the skeletal military relationship with China (and Asia) even as they grapple with the challenges of reduced budgets and manpower. With the need to meet ongoing operational requirements and deliver on future procurement needs at a time of budget stress, the ability to earmark resources to build Canada-China cooperation will be a true test of priorities. The stakes are high. Failure to deliver on the expectations that have been created will not only undermine the efforts that have been made to date but also weaken Canada’s credibility in Asia both in the military sphere and more broadly.

Hugh Stephens is Principal of TransPacific Connections. He is currently a Senior Advisor of Public Policy to Time Warner Inc. and serves as Executive-in-Residence at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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