What the Indo-Pacific Strategy means for Indigenous Peoples

What the Indo-Pacific Strategy means for Indigenous Peoples

With its November 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), Canada joined a growing number of states to embrace the geo-political concept that originated in Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s visionary speech to India’s Parliament in 2007.

Canada made a new contribution to Indo-Pacific governance by including Indigenous peoples as key actors. Canada’s IPS uses the word “Indigenous” no fewer than 15 times, and the first page recognizes that the Indo-Pacific region accounts for 67& of the world’s Indigenous peoples. The IPS explicitly outlines five strategic objectives, with Indigenous rights emerging as a transversal theme. Where do Indigenous peoples fit into the strategy, and what does their inclusion mean as we move forward? 

Indigenous Peoples in Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy 

First of all, Canada uses the IPS to define itself as a Pacific country. It begins by recognizing that Indigenous peoples have inhabited the Pacific coast and shorelines for millennia and that their trade networks have historically extended to Indigenous peoples around the Pacific. The inclusion of Indigenous peoples as definitive of Canada, along with the embrace of Indo-Pacific diasporic Canadians, emerges from the “postnational” identity that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has long promoted. The IPS boldly (literally, in bold print) states that this is a “once-in-a-generation global shift that requires a generational Canadian response.” 

Secondly, Indigenous peoples are explicitly included in three of the five objectives. Regarding security (the first objective), the policy identifies Canada’s Arctic as of interest to Indo-Pacific states. In this context, Canada understands the health and resilience of Northern and Indigenous peoples to be necessary conditions for safeguarding its Arctic sovereignty claims. In trade (the second objective), Canada promotes Indigenous economic empowerment through the Indigenous Peoples Economic and Trade Cooperation Arrangement (IPETCA) with Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan. Indigenous peoples are most prominently included in people-to-people ties (the third objective). They are described as existing partners in trade, oceans protection, and Indigenous rights. Canada promises to support Indigenous leaders and their networks across the region. The IPS includes in its “path of reconciliation” enhanced exchanges with IPETCA partners, education and skills development for Indigenous youth, and support for the implementation of both IPETCA and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). 

Thirdly, although Indigenous peoples are not explicitly mentioned in terms of sustainability (the fourth objective) or regional partnerships (diplomatic relations as the fifth objective), these are areas where Indigenous peoples are key stakeholders. In sustainability, Indigenous peoples in Canada and across the Indo-Pacific already play important roles in fisheries and biodiversity protection and conservation, among other issues. Regional partnerships focus on state-to-state relations, including Canada’s first diplomatic position in Hawaiʻi, that will provide opportunities for enhanced cooperation on Indigenous rights. Attention to Indigenous peoples in the IPS suggests prioritizing relations with Indo-Pacific states that recognize Indigenous peoples in their jurisdictions. In addition to IPETCA partners, this would include Japan, the Philippines, and the United States. We can also endorse Indigenous rights in countries whose minorities peoples self-identify as Indigenous in international forums. 

Indigenous Peoples and Security

The IPS does not explicitly include Indigenous peoples as security actors, but a sociology of international security and defence shows that they have always been there. In the Canadian Armed Forces, about 2.8% of all members self-identify as Indigenous, and there are programs to encourage more Indigenous people to pursue military careers. In Taiwan, Indigenous people (2.48% of Taiwan’s population) account for nearly 9% of Taiwan’s military personnel and 60% of special forces. Tseng Sheng-kuang, of Taiwan’s Amis and Sakizaya Indigenous peoples, was the first soldier from East Asia to be killed in action as part of the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine. He was honoured in a special ceremony in Ukraine, and his remains have been returned to his family in Hualien. The needs of Indigenous military personnel in the Indo-Pacific and from Indo-Pacific regional partners must be an integral part of the IPS implementation as part of Canada’s reconciliation with Indigenous peoples at home and promotion of UNDRIP abroad. 

Since Canada intends to promote UNDRIP, careful attention must be paid to Article 30. This states explicitly that military activities shall not occur on Indigenous lands unless agreed upon or requested by Indigenous peoples or justified in the public interest. States shall consult Indigenous peoples concerned through appropriate procedures and through their representative institutions before using their lands or territories for military activities. 

In addition to implementing Article 30 domestically, Canada should tread carefully if we engage with states that engage militarily on Indigenous lands and waters, including the United States in Hawaiʻi or Guåhan (Guam). We should also note that China violated Article 30 in August 2022 by conducting exercises in the Bashi Channel that transects the sea territory of the Yami (Tao) people of Orchid Island and their relatives, the Ivatan of the Philippines Batanes Island. The IPS is intended to prevent military conflict. It is essential to recognize that conflict would involve Indigenous military personnel and impinge upon Indigenous territory. 

Colorized photograph of an Amis couple in traditional clothing. Taken in pre-World War II Japanese-ruled Taiwan. (Wikipedia images)

Whole-of-society approach

The IPS stands out from most foreign policies in demanding a “comprehensive, whole-of-society strategy.” It includes Indigenous peoples, as well as universities and academics. There will be increased opportunities for student and faculty mobility across the region, and scholars will be involved in the Indo-Pacific Regional Engagement Initiative. Canadian university attempts to decolonize and indigenize pedagogy and research can be integrated into the Indo-Pacific dialogue. 

Finally, Canada’s unique Indo-Pacific Strategy links foreign policy and Indigenous governance in innovative ways. There is no evidence that our IPS will evolve into a fuller participation of Indigenous nations as equals in the international system, as Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh hoped when he appealed to the League of Nations in the 1920s. But, true reconciliation between the Canadian state and Indigenous peoples is a necessary condition for implementing the promises made to Indigenous peoples across the Indo-Pacific. Canada’s mention of Indigenous rights in a foreign policy document is already a sign that change is happening. 

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