Canada’s military is already taking its place in the Indo-Pacific. On August 15, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) announced that the frigates HMCS Ottawa and Vancouver, along with supply ship Asterix, had set sail for nearly five months of duties in the Indo-Pacific. The RCN declared, “Our sailors will be engaging in vital exercises, fostering diplomatic ties, and showcasing the best of Canadian naval capability in the Indo-Pacific.” According to National Defence, the two frigates each carry 240 crew members, and the MV Asterix approximately 150 personnel. Increased investments in security and defence in the Western Pacific are part of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy that was launched on November 27, 2022. Nearly a year later, what is the Canadian military doing in the Indo-Pacific? What does this mean for Canada? I summarize some highlights from the first month of this year’s exercises based on open sources, including reports by CBC’s David Common, who was permitted to cover the exercises.
Japan and the Kuril Islands: Noble Chinook
The thrust of the exercises is military diplomacy with close partners. From August 22 to 28, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force, the United States Indo-Pacific Command, and the RCN conducted the trilateral exercise Noble Chinook from the East of the Kuril Islands to the South of Kanto. The objectives of the exercises, which included anti-surface warfare practice, were to strengthen combat readiness and interoperability between the three navies. Canada, which provided three out of six of the ships, played a key role. US Captain Walter Mainor, said “Operations like these continue to reinforce our confidence in protecting a free and open Indo-Pacific together, as a seamlessly integrated multinational force.” From a Japanese perspective, the location near the Kuril Islands signals solidarity. The four southernmost islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories, have been illegally occupied by the Soviet Union and Russia since 1945.
After Noble Chinook, the three Canadian vessels made their first port call on August 28 in Yokosuka, Japan, to refuel and engage with their Japanese hosts. According to Nikkei Asia, the Ottawa would focus on Southeast Asia and the Vancouver on Northeast Asia, which would include Operation NEON monitoring United Nations sanctions against North Korea. Japanese and Taiwanese media alike speculated that a six-nation force of Canada, the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand would transit through the Taiwan Strait. From September 5 to 6, Ottawa took part, with the USS Ralph Johnson, two Japanese warships and a submarine, in the Noble Stingray exercise in Okinawa.
Tensions with China?
CBC coverage focused on encounters between Canadian and Chinese militaries. In the East China Sea, where China regularly encroaches Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, the CBC reported that the Ottawa had “at least 3 encounters with Chinese ships.” During a 17-hour transit from north to south through the Taiwan Strait on September 9, the Ottawa and USS Ralph Johnson were shadowed by three Chinese vessels and a Taiwanese frigate. Sam Patchell, commanding officer of the Ottawa, explained, “Moving through the Taiwan Strait is to demonstrate a free and open Indo-Pacific. The only way we can do that is to come here and signal it.” Although the CBC insinuated tensions between Canada and China, military expert Scott Taylor noted that the reported encounters were simply routine monitoring by the People’s Liberation Army.
The RCN continued its missions after the Taiwan Strait transit. On September 12, the RCN joined the Noble Wolverine exercises in the South China Sea. The Ottawa then continued to Subic Bay, Zambales, Philippines for a goodwill visit that included an outreach activity with the Indigenous Aeta community. For its part, the Vancouver trained with US and South Korean navies in the Yellow Sea to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the Korean War Battle of Incheon. The point is that these multilateral exercises form part of the military diplomacy that Canada has with close partners, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. They provide an opportunity to implement key components of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, including engagement with Indigenous peoples.
General Wayne Eyre, Chief of Defence Staff, said: “Canada’s expanded defence presence in the region demonstrates that we can be counted on to be an engaged and reliable partner in the Indo-Pacific now, and in the years to come.”
There has been very little public debate about the military dimensions of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, perhaps because Defence has been parsimonious with public announcements and little has been reported in the media. Think tanks have been reliably sceptical. Early on, Jeff Reeves at the Asia Pacific Foundation identified the strategic framing, and the identification of China as an adversary, as weaknesses of the IPS. Ignoring Japan and South Korea, he argued that Canada’s naval presence is more about alignment with the United States than about demands from the region. Just as the 2023 exercises began, Andrew Latham at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, urged a “Canadian grand strategy of restraint.” He claimed that changes in the international order over the past decade have already eliminated the room for Canada to act as an influential middle power. He concluded that Canada, with insufficient military resources, is superfluous to the Western Pacific and is better off focusing on North America and the Arctic. Stephen Nagy and Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, on the other hand, argued against pulling back on the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Canada needs to maintain the trust and cooperation of such forces as Japan and South Korea if it also wants them to help out in the Arctic, where Canadian sovereignty is undermined by both Russia and China.
When Canadian ships sailed off for this year’s exercises in the Western Pacific, General Wayne Eyre, Chief of Defence Staff, said: “Canada’s expanded defence presence in the region demonstrates that we can be counted on to be an engaged and reliable partner in the Indo-Pacific now, and in the years to come.” It is disappointing, however, that there has been no consistent messaging to the public from the Prime Minister or his Cabinet about the IPS, or even about the importance of Canada’s relations with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Without sustained commitment from this and future governments, the Indo-Pacific Strategy may be dead in the water before it really gets a chance to take sail.