Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embarked on a 10-day trip in Asia on Friday — part of a major push to foster ties and develop stronger friendships in the region.
His first stop, alongside Trade Minister Mary Ng and Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, will be the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia.
Trudeau will then head to Indonesia for the G20 summit in Bali, meet with leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group in Bangkok, Thailand, and make one last stop in Tunisia before heading back home.
The tour comes amid a recent government push to build stronger ties in the Indo-Pacific region — and increasingly tough talk around the cabinet table when it comes to China.
“It’s this idea of moving away from China but also trying to diversify our relationship with the Indo-Pacific,” said Stephanie Carvin, a national security expert and associate professor at Carleton University.
“We’ve already seen our major allies develop Indo-Pacific strategies. We’re a little bit behind.”
Here’s what you need to know about what Trudeau’s government is trying to achieve in the next 10 days.
What are Canada’s goals in the Indo-Pacific region?
Upon his arrival in Cambodia, Trudeau will meet with the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which are currently negotiating a trade agreement with Canada.
As for the G20 summit in Indonesia, Trudeau is expected to press the world’s largest economies to isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The summit is meant to focus on shoring up health systems as well as boosting food and energy security, which Trudeau argues Russia has undermined.
However, the trip is also taking place as Trudeau’s government has signaled a much bigger, underlying goal: to bolster Canada’s presence in the region.
Canada is on the cusp of unveiling its Indo-Pacific Strategy, Joly confirmed on Wednesday.
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The plan will have five main objectives, she said, including promoting peace and security, pursuing trade and investment, defending human rights, fighting climate change, and building regional relationships.
As Canada enhances its relationships with other countries in the region, it also intends to intensify its pushback on China. Speaking this week, Joly said the government will invest in “deepening our understanding of how China thinks, operates and plans. How it exerts influence in the region and around the world.”
Key embassies in Canada’s network will have “dedicated experts,” Joly said, to deepen the government’s understanding of China’s goals and challenges.
“This will become a focus of our diplomatic effort,” she said.
So far, the plans for the Indo-Pacific region signal a “major shift” in Canada’s foreign policy, according to Carvin.
“There’s a real willingness right now to really rethink and move away from China,” she said.
Canada appears set to try to improve relations with other countries in the region, Carvin noted, such as South Korea and Japan.
“Those (countries) are kind of seen as the big hopes, in terms of investments and working on things like electronic batteries and mining for rare minerals,” she said.
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The importance of diplomacy in securing these kinds of partnerships with other nations is underestimated, according to Carvin — and to date, Canada has “underinvested” in its diplomatic representation in the region, she said.
“I think generally that people think well of Canada, but they have to think of us first,” Carvin explained.
“This is why it’s important to have a robust presence in the region.”
Carvin said she’ll be watching for increased investments in diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region as a signifier of Canada’s seriousness when it comes to its policy shift in the region — a shift which, she said, “on paper, (sounds) really good.”
Why is Canada focusing on the Indo-Pacific region now?
On Monday, Global News reported that Canadian intelligence officials had warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about China allegedly targeting Canada with a vast campaign of foreign interference, which included funding a clandestine network of at least 11 federal candidates running in the 2019 election.
Just days after the report, Joly came out Wednesday with some of her sharpest critiques of the Chinese government to date.
“China is an increasingly disruptive global power,” Joly said.
“It seeks to shape the global environment into one that is more permissive for interests and values that increasingly depart from ours.”
This recognition, Joly said, has forced Canada — among other countries — to reshape their “strategic outlook” in the Indo-Pacific region.
“To put it plainly: the decisions made in the region will impact Canadian lives for generations,” Joly said.
“We must be at the table, step up our game, and increase our influence.”
Canada has been slow to recognize the importance of shoring up its friendships in the region, Carvin said, and many of our allies have beaten us to the punch. But recent developments have been a “wake-up call” for the Canadian government.
“I think there was some hope that China was going to be a reliable partner, possibly an alternative to the United States, which was obviously very mercurial under President Trump,” she said.
“I think we learned our lesson that this is just something that’s not viable.”
Four key factors have likely pushed Canada to shift its approach to China and the surrounding region, Carvin explained.
First, Canada was forced to shelve the free-trade deal it had been pursuing with China due to the Chinese government’s “hardball” negotiations late in the game.
After that, two Canadian citizens, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, were arbitrarily detained in China for over a year.
“They were just very obviously used as hostages… it was genuinely shocking, not just to the Canadian government, (but also) to the Canadian population,” Carvin said.
That fed into a third factor — public perception has rapidly turned on China, the national security expert said.
“Canadians have gone from seeing China as a potential partner to a rival,” she explained.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of public appetite for increasing relations with China. In fact, there’s a lot of public appetite for moving away from China.”
Finally, Canada’s allies are increasingly drawing their lines in the sand — and signaling that they’d like their geopolitical partners to follow suit.
“The United States has made it clear that it’s moving away from China and it expects its allies to do the same,” Carvin said.
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The U.S. administration, which is Canada’s largest trading partner, is “playing hardball,” according to Carvin.
“Canada has to make a choice. Do we go with the country that represents 80 per cent of our trade, or four per cent of our trade?”
While the Canadian government’s recent rhetoric suggests it has chosen to distance itself from China where possible as it builds friendships with others in the Indo-Pacific region, Carvin said she’ll be watching to see how the Canadian government navigates the “hard choices” that lie ahead.
“You can’t ignore the challenge that China is posing right now to the global order and Canada’s national security, frankly. But also, you can’t ignore the fact that it’s the second-largest economy in the world,” she said.
“You need to come up with an approach that balances our national security, economic concerns, but those involve some hard choices. So I guess what I’m looking for is: what are those hard choices going to be?”
— With files from Global News’ Sam Cooper