As Prime Minister Trudeau heads to Japan to begin his government’s first real push into Asia, Canadians should consider how important Japan is to Canada. Although Japan is no longer Canada’s second largest trading partner, it is a bastion of democracy in the Asia-Pacific region, a close military ally of the United States and the chief Asian partner standing in the way of China’s relentless pursuit of paramountcy in the South and East China Seas.
There are at least two reasons why Canada must make more of an effort to court the Japanese in the years ahead. First, because the South China Sea is probably the most important body of water in the world when it comes to ocean transport and Japan has been building its air and naval power to counter Chinese expansion in the area. Second, because the possibility of a looming collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will significantly hamper Canadian opportunities to enlarge trade with Asia, leaves Canada with little choice but to expand Asian trade on its own.
Over the past decade or so, China has moved to increase the size, range and ability of its naval power in an open bid to dominate the East and South China seas and to round the Malaysian Peninsula and Indonesia to gain access to the Indian Ocean. The ostensible reason for China’s military expansion is to protect the all-important sea lanes which bring oil and other essential commodities to China and Chinese products to the world. No one knows how far China’s naval ambitions go, but it certainly seems the case that China also wants unfettered access to the western Pacific and is very unhappy at the naval presence of the United States in the region.
China’s ambitions have awakened fears among virtually all the nations on the periphery of the East and South China Seas due to the clashing territorial claims of those nations with China’s so-called “nine-dash line” which, if internationally recognized, would extend China’s sovereignty deep into the South China Sea and clash with the territorial claims of virtually every other nation there. Thus, South Vietnam, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Borneo, the Philippines and Singapore all have a stake in resisting China’s bellicosity. But almost none of those nations has the resources, military or otherwise, to do much about China’s claims.
And it isn’t just claims that are at issue. At places such as Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by both Japan and China, the Chinese have dredged the seabed to build an air and naval base from which the Chinese “Coast Guard” and land-based aircraft can range much farther over the sea than previously. The Chinese use their “Coast Guard” instead of their navy to patrol these areas to avoid direct clashes with the US Navy and the navies of other countries. But many of their “Coast Guard” vessels are now as large and capable as warships and some are openly armed.
Japan has been expanding its navy at a rapid pace over the past decade and has made changes to its constitution that will allow it to fight in defence of its allies. With some fifty capital ships in its navy, the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force is modern, well trained and well equipped. There is little Canada could do militarily to help Japan or other nations threatened by China. But Canada can at least show that it is actively engaged in the region, politically opposes China’s actions, and will do whatever it can to maintain order in the region.
There is another reason why Japan is important to Canada and that is that both US presidential candidates have declared themselves to be opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Thus, no matter who wins the US presidential election next November, the TPP could be dead on arrival. Canada must develop a “Plan B” very quickly or forgo an expedited entry into Asian markets. The latter would be a disaster and once again underline Canada’s overwhelming dependence on the US for its economic well-being. And there too, both presidential candidates have very frosty attitudes towards NAFTA.
It is well past time for Canada to truly take Asia, and Japan, seriously.
(Full disclosure: I was a guest of the Japanese government in late January).
This article appears in The Dispatch Summer 2016 Volume XIV Issue II
David Bercuson is Director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, Area Director, International Policy for the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary and Program Director, Canadian Global Affairs Institute.