Shifting our guns to the Pacific

| June 28, 2012 | 0 Comments
Navy sailors from the People's Liberation Army stand at attention on a ship in Qingdao, China.

Navy sailors from the People's Liberation Army stand at attention on a ship in Qingdao, China.

Within the last few decades, the world centre of gravity has moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific. By virtually any metric, whether it is economic power, military power, political power, or global influence, the world centre of power has come to reside in the Pacific — with China at the heart of this profound transition.
Numerous issues in the security realm make the region a potentially volatile one. As the result of regional rivalries, the importance of the region’s economies, and ongoing military build-ups, the Asia-Pacific region has been likened aptly to the powder keg of Europe prior to the outbreak of the First World War.
These issues, in turn, have the potential to affect Canada’s national security interests, whether directly or indirectly. However, Canada’s leaders have not grasped the enormity of the paradigm shift that, for the first time in five hundred years, Europe no longer sets the global agenda.

 

More than 50,000 ships pass through the Strait of Malacca each year, transporting more than one-third of all global trade and half of the world’s oil, including 80 per cent of China’s and Japan’s energy imports.

More than 50,000 ships pass through the Strait of Malacca each year, transporting more than one-third of all global trade and half of the world’s oil, including 80 per cent of China’s and Japan’s energy imports.

This essay argues that Canada needs to engage the Asia-Pacific region more substantially in order to defend and advance its national interests. It makes that argument by reviewing the regional context — its importance in the global economy, trade and commerce, and the security environment — and, in so doing, identifies the ways in which Canada’s security interests could be harmed. It concludes by putting forth two sets of strategic policy prescriptions: first, to continue to engage China, while at the same time hedging against it strategically; and second, to reorient Canada’s naval emphasis from the Atlantic to the Pacific in order to deal with threats and contingencies in that quintessentially maritime realm.
The centre of global economic power, trade, and commerce now resides in the Asia-Pacific region. China, Japan, and South Korea are the world’s second-, third-, and 15th-largest economies in the world. Northeast Asia, that is to say China, Japan, and South Korea, constitutes one of the great regional dynamos that drive the global economy.

 

A boarding party team conducts a small-arms proficiency shoot onboard HMCS Charlottetown in the Gulf of Aden while on Operation ARTEMIS in May.

A boarding party team conducts a small-arms proficiency shoot onboard HMCS Charlottetown in the Gulf of Aden while on Operation ARTEMIS in May.

In particular, the Chinese economy has performed in a way that is little short of stellar and indeed historic in its breadth and depth: double-digit growth, or roughly 10 to 11 percent growth per annum for almost 30 years. By most indications, China will continue to be a major economic force for decades to come and might even overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy.
So China has become the classic entrepôt, the great engine replacing Japan as the animator of Asian economies, though Japan still has an economy that easily eclipses that of most other countries. We are looking at a new world altogether.

 

The bulk of the Canadian navy has always been stationed in Nova Scotia where this training exercise, also involving Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), took place. Author Thomas Adams argues that Canada should move part of its naval forces to the Pacific.

The bulk of the Canadian navy has always been stationed in Nova Scotia where this training exercise, also involving Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), took place. Author Thomas Adams argues that Canada should move part of its naval forces to the Pacific.

In 2008, merchandise imports and exports destined for and originating from Asia accounted for approximately one-quarter of all global merchandise trade, with China as the world’s second-largest exporter and third-largest importer of goods, and Japan as the fourth-largest importer and exporter of goods. In the same year, over 5.5 percent of Canada’s exports were destined for Asia, while over 15 percent of our imports originated from Asia. The world’s busiest ports are located in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.
China, by 2015, has an ambition to be the world’s greatest shipbuilder with the biggest and most productive shipyards in the world, though perhaps not the greatest high-end shipbuilder, as that credit would probably still reside with Japan and South Korea. It will also have the biggest mega-ports in the world, as well as the biggest production of containers.

 

Though Sino-Canadian relations have traditionally been good, political relations cooled when Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power in 2006. He made his first state visit in 2009, and another in February 2012, where he once again met Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Though Sino-Canadian relations have traditionally been good, political relations cooled when Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power in 2006. He made his first state visit in 2009, and another in February 2012, where he once again met Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Additionally, the region is also home to the world’s most important sea lines of communication for trade and commerce. Over 50,000 ships pass through the Strait of Malacca each year, transporting over one-third of all global trade and half of the world’s oil, including 80 percent of China’s and Japan’s energy imports. The 960-kilometre strait lies between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the last being home to the world’s busiest port, and represents the world’s most critical strategic chokepoint.
China’s unprecedented economic growth has provided the means by which it has been able to embark on its substantial military modernization. And despite a long tradition of continentalism, China has now become increasingly Mahanian in outlook. (Arthur Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History was one of the most important books on military strategy in the first half of the 20th Century. It was published in 1890.)

 

The Asia-Pacific region is quintessentially maritime, and this fact has been further underscored by the dramatic growth of regional navies.

The Asia-Pacific region is quintessentially maritime, and this fact has been further underscored by the dramatic growth of regional navies.

Certainly the appetite for international energy has contributed in part to China’s becoming a maritime power. In their search for energy, the Chinese are becoming increasingly exposed and vulnerable to the vagaries of the maritime realm, as their sea lanes stretch back across the Indian Ocean to Africa or across the Pacific to South America and elsewhere. They are acquiring blue-water appetites and a desire to have an ocean-going naval presence.
As such, one of the primary characteristics of China’s military modernization is the development of power-projection capabilities. Advanced submarines, surface combatants, and (eventually) aircraft carriers are all key components of China’s military modernization, meant to provide it with the ability to project power abroad to advance its national interests.

 

The U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, Japan.

The U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, Japan.

Another part of the reason for the growth of Chinese military power is to enable China to protect its own borders and to shape the strategic environment in which the future of Taiwan may be decided.
The status of Taiwan is still a matter of dispute between the island’s leaders and the Chinese Communist Party. Taiwan is for all intents and purposes a de facto state, albeit not one recognized officially as a de jure one. Taiwan wishes to obtain such recognition, while China desires to incorporate the ‘renegade province’ into the mainland.
Were the island to become reunited with the mainland, China would have the ability to project naval power more readily throughout the region and beyond by virtue of having unencumbered blue-water access through naval bases on the island.
Currently, China has over 1,000 ballistic missiles pointed directly at the island in order to deter it from declaring formal independence, and the number of missiles continues to grow. Meanwhile, Taiwan relies on the Taiwan Relations Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1979, in which America undertakes to provide the island with the military equipment needed to defend itself, while pledging to come to its aid in the event of an unprovoked attack by the mainland.
The China-Taiwan situation is the flashpoint most likely to bring American and Chinese military forces into direct conflict with each other, with potentially far-reaching or even catastrophic consequences.
Elsewhere in the region, the divided Korean Peninsula remains one of the most militarized places in the world. The ceasefire agreement signed in 1953 by North Korea and U.S.-allied forces has not yet been replaced with a permanent peace agreement. As a result, approximately 25,000 American troops are stationed south of the demilitarized zone to supplement South Korea’s 687,000 troops.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is home to the world’s fifth-largest army; over 1 million troops are stationed just north of the demilitarized zone, as are hundreds of tanks and aircraft, and thousands of artillery pieces. For the last couple of decades, Pyongyang has been steadfastly developing a ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capability.
Fortunately, since the end of hostilities in 1953, U.S. and Republic of Korea forces have arguably deterred a second North Korean invasion of the South. Tensions along the demilitarized zone remain high, however. Should war break out on the peninsula, U.S. and South Korean forces would undoubtedly prevail and, in all likelihood, bring about the end of the North Korean regime.
But the war would be tremendously bloody: Seoul would most likely be obliterated by the thousands of artillery pieces and missiles pointed at it; Japan might be attacked with ballistic missiles, possibly armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD); and depending on the state of North Korea’s WMD and missile capabilities at that time, the American homeland might itself be attacked directly.
While America, China, Japan, and South Korea all wish to see the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s WMD programs and the reduction of hostilities across the demilitarized zone, they also desire to prevent the sudden collapse of the northern regime. The costs of unification would be tremendous, a humanitarian crisis might ensue, and the status of U.S. forces on the peninsula (and in Japan) would be called into question.
The China-Taiwan and Korean Peninsula flashpoints highlight a related issue: the endemic proliferation of WMD and ballistic missiles in Northeast Asia. China has more than 1,000 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles on its coast pointed at Taiwan and approximately 30 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the North American continent. As evidenced by recent tests and pronouncements, North Korea appears wholly unwilling to halt its development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile capabilities and has shown itself willing to sell missiles and nuclear technology to the highest bidder, including countries such as Iran. Both America and Japan have missile defence assets deployed in the region to counter those threats, and Taiwan has shown interest in acquiring such a capability.
Since the early days of the Cold War, America’s forward presence in Northeast Asia has brought relative stability to an otherwise unstable region. For better or worse, the United States is the great balancer by virtue of some 58,000 forward-deployed U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan and security partnerships with other regional states.
America’s unofficial support for Taiwan has arguably deterred an unprovoked Chinese attempt to reunify the island with the mainland by force. Its security guarantee to Japan precludes that country’s need to fully arm itself above and beyond the limits allowed by its constitution, which in turn has served to placate its neighbours’ fears of a remilitarized Japan. And America’s forward deployment of troops in South Korea has deterred another North Korean invasion.
Thus, a contraction of America’s presence in the region would compel those who currently rely on U.S. security guarantees to provide for their own security to a far greater extent than they do already.
Such an outcome would be further exacerbated if China does not become more transparent about its military modernization and its overall intentions in the security realm. This would further add to existing suspicions in the region and might lead to miscalculation and even war. So while there is a great deal of anti-Americanism in Asia at the grassroots and elite levels, many are hedging their bets over and against China. What, they ask, is China’s endgame? The message is, ‘Do not let the Americans leave Asia.’
All of this illustrates the importance of the region to the global economy and the delicate and intricate security dynamics present there. Though it may not be readily apparent to most Canadians, what happens in the Asia-Pacific region can affect Canada’s national security interests directly and indirectly. Canada’s interests have the potential to be harmed as a result of instability in the Asia-Pacific regional security environment.
First, the disruption of trade and commerce: As a trading nation, Canada relies heavily on a secure and stable trading environment. As noted above, China, Japan, and South Korea are the world’s second-, third-, and 15th-largest economies, and Taiwan is the twenty-fourth largest.
Those countries are home to some of the world’s busiest ports, and the volume of trade taking place within and emanating from the region is significant. A severe disruption of global commerce in the region would pose a clear danger to Canadian interests. Unfortunately, it is possible for some or all of these states to become involved in a military conflict with one another. It is also likely that the United States would itself become militarily involved, whether over the China-Taiwan situation, the Korean Peninsula, or some other issue. The repercussions for the global economy generally and Canada specifically from a regional war could be devastating.
It is also possible that the Strait of Malacca would be severely compromised. Acts of piracy or terrorism or a regional power blockading the strait as part of a larger regional conflict would produce far-reaching consequences for international trade and commerce.
We could see a substantial rise of shipping insurance rates, demonstrated by the recent increase due to the incessant pirate attacks of ships off the Somali coast. To avoid the threat of piracy, shipping companies might be forced to use alternative routes to reach their destination. However, this would lead to increased travel times, travel costs, insurance premiums, and costs for the exporter to ship products. This in turn would lead to reduced sales on the production side and increased prices for the consumer.
In addition, the fragile oil market could be further threatened as a result of illegal seizures of oil tankers, thereby leading to increased prices in oil at home. Overseas threats, while far from our shores, can nonetheless wreak havoc for Canadians at home.
Second, the rise of China. As the result of the size of its economy, the nature and scope of its military modernization, and its growing regional and global influence, China will increasingly become a critical determinant of the security environment in Northeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region. It is conceivable that China will wish to carve out a bigger role for itself in its own region, if not on the entire world stage, commensurate with its ever-growing economic and increasingly military power.
Throughout history, such behaviour has typically resulted in conflicts of interest between the status quo power (e.g., the United States) and the rising power (e.g., China), as the former wishes to maintain, if not expand, what it already has, while the latter desires its own piece of the pie, at the expense of the former. War has often been the result and has decided the ultimate apportionment of regional and global spoils.
China is the most likely candidate to challenge America’s unrivalled power, and there is already competition between Washington and Beijing for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Should China seriously challenge or disrupt the regional and global status quo (e.g., through an unprovoked attempt to incorporate Taiwan into the mainland by force), its actions might elicit a serious response from the United States.
To some extent, the United States and its security partners in the region are already preparing for such an eventuality. As the American presence in the Asia-Pacific region provides a modicum of security and stability in an otherwise volatile region, the rise of China at the expense of U.S. power and influence could have a profoundly detrimental effect on regional security and the security interests of the region’s key players. As Canada is America’s neighbour, largest trading partner, and closest military ally, the state of Sino-U.S. relations will necessarily have implications for Canadian foreign and defence policy.
Thus, we have seen that the remarkable growth of China is as much an issue for Beijing as it is for Washington, London, New Delhi, and the other great capitals of the world. They are all caught in the crossfire of those who see China as an opportunity and those who perceive it as a challenge. And that ambiguity is playing itself out in many corners of the globe. We can see it, for example, in Washington, where some have coined the curious conflation ‘congagement.’ Are they engaging China? Are they containing China?
Of course, one can advance persuasive arguments that China constitutes a threat to the new world order. And indeed, one has only to read U.S. Department of Defense publications that highlight the relentless growth of the Chinese military. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked publicly in Singapore several years ago, ”Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?“
So while there is much admiration for China, there is also a great deal of uncertainty, even ambiguity, about how to position oneself over and against China, whether one is in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia or India.
Third, the proliferation of WMD. An interstate missile exchange as part of a larger regional war would severely disrupt the regional and thus global economy upon which Canada’s prosperity is highly dependent.
A direct ballistic missile attack against the American homeland as a result of a regional conflict would wreak tremendous damage, not only against the U.S. population, but also its economy, upon which Canada’s own economy depends so strongly.
It is also conceivable that a missile could strike a Canadian population and economic centre — either intentionally or as a result of a misfire. Moreover, should American security guarantees to its key allies be called into question, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan might develop their own nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities that could greatly increase regional instability.
An appropriate question to ask is, ‘What is Canada’s view of the Asia-Pacific security environment and the rise of China as it relates to Canada’s security interests?’ Unfortunately, the answer to this question continues to be, ‘Not much.’
Both the 2005 Defence Policy Statement and the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy combined make mention of Asia seven times and China once.
The 2005 Defence Policy Statement, for instance, notes that ‘long-standing tensions remain’ in Asia and that even though those ‘hot spots . . . are unlikely to erupt into major regional wars in the near future, the possibility cannot be discounted. North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship and ongoing tensions between Taiwan and China remain serious concerns in the region.’ In order to contribute to international stability in the Asia-Pacific, the Department of National Defence will engage in ‘defence diplomacy’ in the region.
The Canada First Defence Strategy says even less: ‘The ongoing buildup of conventional forces in Asia Pacific countries is another trend that may have a significant impact on international stability in coming years.’
As discussed, several issues in the Asia-Pacific region can have both direct and indirect negative consequences for Canada’s security interests. As security abroad helps ensure Canadian security and prosperity at home, Canada needs to make effective contributions to security in the region. It can also do so with two sets of prescriptions: first, engage with, but strategically hedge against, China, and second, shift naval assets from the Atlantic to the Pacific in order to deal with immediate and potential security threats.
Canada should engage China as much as possible to advance our mutual interests in the economic and security realms. Though Sino-Canadian relations have traditionally been good, political relations cooled significantly after the Conservative Party came to power in 2006. Fortunately, after three years in office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made his first state visit to China in December 2009.
This was a positive first step towards restoring the relationship. There is much to gain from such engagement with China, not the least of which is the great potential of Chinese foreign direct investment in Canada and the tremendous market opportunities in China for Canadian exports. Continued engagement could also encourage China to become more transparent about its intentions in the security realm.
At the same time, Canada should hedge strategically and if necessary be prepared to stand firm with the United States and other allies against China, should Beijing attempt to revise the regional and global status quo forcefully. Amicable, simultaneous relations with both America and China are in Canada’s best interest.
Ultimately, however, our economic and security interests lie primarily with the United States. As Canada’s security and prosperity depends to a large extent on America’s global pre-eminence, the rise of China — at the expense of a significant decrease in American power — would not be in our interest, especially if Sino-U.S. relations turned decidedly sour. Unfortunately, no one is as yet certain about China’s true intentions in the regional security architecture. To wish for the best — that China might have a ‘peaceful rise’ — while not preparing for the worst could compromise Canada’s interests. As such, Canada must be sufficiently realistic to avoid basing its security on purely wishful thinking.
For all of Canada’s naval history, the emphasis has been on Atlantic operations. There has been a natural tendency toward that approach, given the transatlantic nature of historical links between North America and Europe. These links have been solidified militarily through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in which Canada’s primary naval role has been anti-submarine warfare in the Atlantic.
Correspondingly, the bulk of the Canadian navy has always been stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a smaller force stationed in Esquimalt, British Columbia. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and despite the fact that the global centre of political, economic, and military power and influence has since shifted towards the Pacific, the Canadian navy remains primarily Atlantic-centric.
It is no surprise that the Americans have moved the bulk of their naval forces into the Pacific in recognition of new geostrategic realities, and Canada’s security interests would be well served by a similar shift in focus for the Canadian navy.
The most direct and meaningful way in which Canada can contribute directly to a secure and stable Asia-Pacific region in concert with its partners and allies is through forward deployment of its naval forces — a shift of Canada’s naval assets from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The Asia-Pacific region is quintessentially maritime, and this fact has been further underscored by the dramatic growth of regional navies and the critical importance of regional sea lines of communication for the movement of prodigious amounts of exports. Thus, the Canadian navy is an obvious vehicle for telegraphing Canada’s national resolve. Clearly, Canada will always be a modest player in the region, but current trends point invariably towards the emergence of maritime coalitions designed to secure the ocean commons, facilitate the untrammelled movement of global commerce, and provide relief from disasters — natural and otherwise. Thus, the Canadian navy can contribute materially to the maintenance of peace and good order at sea. Hopefully, coalition operations of the sort witnessed in the anti-piracy campaign off the Horn of Africa will foster interoperability among navies and co-opt those navies that are a source of concern in a number of quarters throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Greater Canadian naval involvement in those seas raises questions about rebalancing the navy — a subject of discussion over many years. This will no doubt happen in the fullness of time as the navy of the future emerges and the incontrovertible nature of Asia’s military and political power turns Ottawa’s gaze towards the Pacific.

Excerpted from Canada’s National Security in the Post-9/11 World: Strategy, Interests, and Threats, edited by David S. McDonough, © University of Toronto Press, 2012.

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