Should Canada embrace a new geopolitical construct that includes not only the Pacific Rim, but the areas surround the Indian Ocean as well?
That is the question posed by foreign officials at a conference in Vancouver this month surrounding the emerging “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), a fledgling discussion on how partner states from Japan and the United States to Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asian countries and India can work together to maintain rule of law and freedom of navigation in a region that’s increasingly fraught with confrontations.
“The purpose of the conference is to talk about the opportunities in the Pacific region, and also how each community in the region can ... maintain those opportunities for everyone in the future, both in terms of investment and trade, and also in terms of topics like the freedom of navigation and so on,” said Yasuhisa Kawamura, Japanese ambassador to Canada. “Freedom of navigation and rule of law form the bedrock for the stability in the region, so we have to strike a right balance for this area to continue to be fruitful for every country.”
The conference, which lasted two days in Vancouver, focused not only on security issues such as establishing a baseline to peacefully resolve regional issues, but also on items such as institution-building to maintain a multilateral international order, and investment in transportation infrastructure like railroads and ports.
But officials are quick to point out that, despite obvious concern over China’s rise in the Pacific and Indian oceans and in the South China Sea, the FOIP initiative isn’t an effort targeting Beijing and its recent expansion.
“FOIP is not a notion of exclusivity,” Kawamura said. “It’s an inclusive approach, and we are talking about a basic set of principles and a code of conduct. So if any single party would follow these basic principles, it’s most welcomed. Any country is welcome, as long as they understand the fundamental governing rules of the game.”
This is the first time FOIP officials, who likened their efforts to China’s Belt and Road Initiative of infrastructure building, have taken their case to Canada. Sujan R. Chinoy, director general of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, said previous talks have taken place in member states, but added he hopes Canada will soon step up its own involvement by joining.
“In our countries, we’ve been talking about FOIP for a while now,” Chinoy said. “The fact that Canada is doing it now is extremely noteworthy; it’s the first time Canada is stepping up and taking the initiative on this topic. The whole point here is that Canada is also a Pacific power.”
Chinoy noted that one of the reasons for a broader concept of Indo-Pacific, rather than the traditional Asia-Pacific concept, is that nations in South Asia and on the east coast of Africa increasingly share the same issues as countries in the Pacific and South China Sea regions. Chinoy noted China’s expansion of port facilities in places like Sri Lanka as a sign that FOIP is needed in South Asia as much as it is in East Asian and Southeast Asian waters.
“China has not been good about clarifying its intentions to anyone, so the issue is there in the Indian Ocean in the new and potentially disruptive Chinese presence,” Chinoy said, adding that the bigger reason for FOIP is for regions like South Asia to make their voices heard.
“Existing structures like APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] are not representative,” he said. “India is not a part of APEC, for example…. Asia-Pacific is a colonial concept, and we associate the term with the rise of the United States, which first became accessible to Japan, then extended to the Asian Tigers, then to China. Today, we call it Indo-Pacific because growth is not only the monopoly of East and Southeast Asia. Growth is the entitlement of the rest of Asia, as well, and that growth is now spreading. The Indo-Pacific is simply a recognition of the new reality.”
Jeff Reeves, vice-president of research at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said the foundation hopes to make the conference the first of an annual Vancouver-based gathering to discuss broader geopolitical issues with top Canadian and foreign minds. The aim, he said, is to ensure Canadian officials better understand the increasingly complex dynamic in one of Canada’s most important export markets.
“Because of the current tensions with China as well as the ‘America first’ stance in the United States, Canada has to look at regional partners that will help us advance our national interests in the Asia-Pacific,” Reeves said, noting Tokyo’s involvement in FOIP and sharing membership with Canada in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership provides Ottawa with a major ally on that front.
“Japan is an important middle power. It has shared foreign-policy values with Canada. Whereas FOIP for the U.S. has a heavy focus on security supported by the navy and air force, Japan is much more focused on FOIP through the lens of inclusivity, of governance, of joint development…. So Canada has an opportunity to not only learn to engage other partners in Asia, but also the opportunity to work with a middle-power partner that shares its view of the Asia-Pacific and can help us navigate the institutions we are outside of.”
As for anything concrete coming out of the conference, officials said expectations should remain low, because just beginning the conversation is a big step for Canada in an area where traditional engagement has been sparse.
“Our engagement with the Indo-Pacific is a long-term endeavour,” Kawamura said. “It’s not an overnight event. But it’s a welcomed and symbolic first kick-start of the meeting, especially in Vancouver, so it’s very significant. It gives an opportunity for ordinary Canadians, businessmen and government officials to pay attention to the Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as the necessity to do so.” Reeves agreed, adding that while it is not a foregone conclusion that Canada will join FOIP, understanding the issues will be crucial for Ottawa.
“The Indo-Pacific makes a lot of sense for countries like Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, India and Japan, which increasingly sees its trade and energy come from the Middle East through the Indian Ocean,” he said. “For Canada, I don’t think it naturally makes a lot of sense just to abandon the Asia-Pacific construct for an Indo-Pacific construct without first sitting down and looking at the pros and cons.
“The pros are, this aligns us with our closest allies in the United States, Japan and Australia. The worry is, though, the states in Southeast Asia are a little hesitant to adopt the concept because they see it marginalizing them as the heart of the Asia-Pacific. “So we have to have those dialogues with our partners and see what is right for Canada’s national interest in Asia: Does it make sense to start thinking about the Indo-Pacific as Asia?”