Canada’s Partnership with Japan: Strengthening Security in the Indo-Pacific

Canada’s Partnership with Japan: Strengthening Security in the Indo-Pacific
John Smith Wexley the III, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One important element of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) is accelerated alignment with Japan. Japan is a frontline democracy, pinched in with threats from Russia, China, and North Korea.

In the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military exercises around Taiwan last August, China launched five missiles into Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has called for the “Group of 7” (G7) states, which include Canada, to prevent unilateral use of force to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific. Renewed commitments to international rule-of-law are needed in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its pact with China. What can Canada do to help Japan address these grave security concerns? 

Canada-Japan Relations

Canada and Japan enjoy a rich, multifaceted strategic partnership. Our economies are tightly linked, notably in the automobile industry. The two countries communicate regularly through bilateral summits, Foreign Minister meetings, and multilateral conferences. Since the 2010 Canada-Japan Joint Declaration on Political, Peace and Security Cooperation, the two countries have deepened their strategic partnership in foreign affairs and defence. An Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement came into force between our militaries in 2019. The Canadian Armed Forces regularly conduct joint and multilateral exercises with Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF). The planned General Security of Information Agreement will strengthen this biliateral military cooperation. 

Moving forward, Japan will need more from Canada.

Japan’s outlined its defence relationship with Canada in its 2022 Defence of Japan Annual White Paper, where Canada merited a full-page analysis. While expressing concern about Canada’s historical reductions in defence spending and human resources, the report notes Canada’s contributions to NORAD, NATO, the Five Eyes Intelligence Sharing Alliance, UN Peacekeeping Operations, sanctions enforcement against North Korea, and support for Ukrainian Armed Forces since 2015. It expressed cautious hope for Canada’s yet-to-be-published IPS, noting that Canada was reviewing its military ties with the PLA, had ended bilateral military training with China since February 2018, and has sent Canadian warships through the Taiwan Strait ever since, in accordance with international law. 

In a prelude to the IPS, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly met with Foreign Affairs Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa in Tokyo in October and announced a Canada-Japan Action Plan for contributing to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The declared Six Shared Priorities are: (1) the rule of law, (2) peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief; (3) health security; (4) free trade promotion and trade agreement implementation; and (6) environment and climate change. Deepened defence exchanges promised under the rubric of “rule of law” probably reassured Japan that Canada’s military is returning. 

Japan, with 17 direct mentions, is prominent in the IPS. One innovation is identifying the “North Pacific” (Japan and the Republic of Korea) as a priority. Canada reiterates its commitments to implement the Six Shared Priorities and conclude a General Security of Information Agreement. Japan emerges as a key partner in supply chain resilience, science and technology innovation, and free trade. Japanese leaders can take heart that Canada now considers China as a “disruptive global power” that is militarizing the region, violating human rights, eroding rule-of-law, and advancing unilateral territorial claims. 

Developments since November 

On December 17, Japan released its National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS warns that the world has now entered a “historical inflection point,” even “the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII.” In the NSS, Japan defines its interests as the maintenance of its sovereignty, independence and territory integrity, economic prosperity in an open and stable international economic order, and protection of universal values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. These interests are threatened by strengthened strategic ties between Russia and China, the intensification of China’s military activities around and beyond Taiwan, and the North Korean military build-up. Threats extend to space and to cyberspace. Japan commits itself to strengthen its capacities in diplomacy, defence, economics, technology, and intelligence. The Japan-US Alliance is the cornerstone of the strategy, but it also calls for enhancing cooperation with other allies and like-minded countries, specifying Canada by name. Japan promises to bolster its counterstrike capabilities in the event of an armed attack on Japan. 

In direct response, China immediately intensified its military actions around Japan, including Coast Guard patrols around Japan’s Senkaku Islands and drills by the PLA aircraft carrier Liaoning and accompanying warships. Yomiuri Shimbun quoted anonymous Chinese government sources that the drills, happening under orders from Chinese leader Xi Jinping, simulated attacks on Japan’s Nansei islands. The exercises included passage between Japan’s Okinawa and Miyako Islands, hundreds of take-offs and landings by aircraft and helicopters while simultaneously holding joint exercises with the Russian Navy off Zhejiang Province. The timing was apparently decided by Xi himself to show his displeasure about the NSS. The Guardian reports that China’s military surge reflects a “new normal” under Xi. 

In this dangerous context, Japan raised its defence budget for 2023 to a record high. The goal is to raise defence spending to 2% of the gross domestic product, in line with NATO goals. The challenge is how to prevent China from escalating to war, as Russia did in Ukraine. 

Canada’s Potential Contribution

Japan should be pleased with Canada’s IPS. Since the launch of the IPS, Canada has hosted the 12th Japan-Canada Political-Military Dialogue. Japan hosted the Japan-Canada Joint Economic Committee online. Prime Minister Kishida made a visit to Ottawa on January 12

Moving forward, Japan will need more from Canada. Supply chain resilience and technology cooperation can only enhance the economies of both countries. Canada needs to prioritize the infrastructure for getting energy products to Japan so that Japan is less dependent on imports shipped through the South China Sea. Universities also need to teach Canadians more about Japan. 

The most difficult hurdle might be Canada’s defence contribution, which looks likely to fall significantly short of NATO spending targets for at least half a decade. Meeting Canada’s defence and security promises will come with a steep price tag. The government will have to explain to Canadians why this is more important than competing spending priorities. 

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