The announcement of the ground-breaking trilateral AUKUS security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States on September 16, 2021, naturally generated the expected flood of discourse and debate in both the specialist and general media. Most coverage so far has been positive, welcoming and salutatory, apart from the understandable disappointment of the French as the Attack-class submarine contract with Australia is cancelled. Of course there has been the predictably belligerent response from China, and some expressions of concern about a new regional arms race, which is not new and is actually being driven by the relentless military buildup of China itself, hence AUKUS in partial response. And of course there were the obligatory alarmist comments from the greens about “floating Chernobyls” (which have no real technical basis).
What is notably missing from the discussion so far is the question, “Where are the Canadians?”
Canada is part of the core five-nation Anglo-sphere with Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the US, sharing many historical, cultural, social, political and legal similarities, liberal democratic values, and parliamentary governments. Today, all five nations have trade-based free-market economies and successful, vibrant, multi-cultural societies based on immigration. They also share strong military traditions and a legacy of mutually supportive alliances forged in the shedding of blood together, side-by-side in both World Wars, in Korea, and more recently in Afghanistan.
However, while the country is a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing arrangement, Canada’s formal defence treaty obligations are limited to the Euro-focused North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD). Canada is not a party to any formal military treaty, alliance or construct in the Indo-Pacific region – although it is definitely a Pacific nation.
“Like Australia, Canada is subject to acts of pressure and coercion by China.”
The Pacific coast of Canada, all part of the province of British Columbia, extends for an aerial distance of 1,000 kilometres between the US States of Washington and Alaska, on the same latitudes as the north-east of China and the Russian Far East. Due to its deeply incised geography and over 40,000 islands of varying sizes, the actual length of Canada’s Pacific coast is over 25,000 kilometres, compared to Australia’s Pacific coastline of about 33,000 kilometres (from the WA-NT border to Tasmania and Victoria, including islands).
Similar to Australia, Canada is a bulk exporter of grains, mineral ores, coal, oil and LNG, primarily to Asian markets, and a net importer of manufactured goods, primarily from Asian factories – across the Pacific. Canada is thus overwhelmingly dependent on Pacific-based maritime trade, freedom of navigation and maintenance of the rules-based order of ocean governance, security, and safety of shipping.
Canada is no less vulnerable than Australia and the US, and far more vulnerable than the UK, to existing and emerging security threats in the Pacific, including not only the relentless military buildup of China, but also by Russia in its Far East region The incursion of a four-ship Chinese task force into the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off Alaska in late August this year should send a clear signal to Canada also, given the close proximity to Canadian waters. Like Australia, Canada is subject to acts of pressure and coercion by China, including the politically motivated detention of Canadians, ostensibly in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of the CFO of technology company Huawei in Vancouver in late 2018, on US charges of breaching sanctions on Iran.
Canada is more than the “middle power” that Australia often claims to be. It has a total land-area of nearly 10 million square kilometres (the second largest after Russia), compared to Australia’s 7.7 million square kilometres, a total coastline of over 240,000 kilometres (the longest in the world), compared to Australia’s 59,000 kilometres, a population of nearly 40 million, compared to Australia’s circa 25 million, a GDP of over US$1.7 trillion, compared to Australia’s US$1.4 trillion, and a GNP of over 1.9 trillion PPP dollars, compared to Australia’s 1.3 trillion PPP dollars, according to a World Bank publication in 2019.
However, these non-trivial quantum differences between Canada and Australia are not matched militarily. Canada is ranked 21 out of 140 countries while Australia punches well above its relative economic and population weight, being ranked 19 out of 140 countries in terms of military strength. For 2020 the total Canadian defence budget was US$22.8 billion, only 1.4 per cent of GDP, while for 2021-2022, Australia’s consolidated defence budget is AU$44.6 billion (US$32.4 billion), US$10 billion more than Canada in real terms and just over two per cent of GDP.
Total personnel in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is circa 107,000, comprising 72,000 active and 35,000 reserves. With slightly more than half the population of Canada, total personnel in the Australian Defence Force compares very favourably at circa 80,000, comprising 60,000 active and 20,000 reserves.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has a total of circa 377 aircraft, including 62 F-18 “Legacy” Hornet fighters, some purchased secondhand recently from Australia. While part of the F-35 Lightning development consortium, Canada has not yet opted in to purchasing the F-35, for better or worse. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has a similar number of aircraft to the RCAF at over 300, but with much greater combat punch than the Canadians, including F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F-35s. Unlike the RCAF, the RAAF has one of the most advanced electronic warfare, intelligence, surveillance and command and control capabilities of any air force after the US and UK, and is also making major efforts towards autonomous aircraft and in the space domain.
The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has 64 ships, including but not limited to 12 aging frigates, four aging, conventional submarines, no destroyers, and no amphibious assault vessels. Canada is ordering up to 15 new frigates based on the British Type 26 Global Combat Ship, similar to the nine new Hunter-class frigates being built for Australia.
By comparison the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has 50 ships, with more new ships and more up to date war-fighting capabilities than the Canadian fleet. These include but are not limited to eight Anzac-class frigates, three Hobart-class destroyers, three amphibious assault ships (two Canberra-class and one Bay class) and six conventional submarines. Fourteen new offshore patrol vessels are being built and nine new Hunter-class frigates and a variety of other new vessels are on order. And now eight nuclear powered submarines are to be developed through AUKUS.
The Canadian Army has limited armoured mobility and no dedicated attack helicopters, while the Australian Army is expanding and updating its fleet of Abrams main battle tanks, adding new armoured reconnaissance vehicles and infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery and various missile systems, and replacing its problematic, European Tiger attack helicopters with the venerable US-made Apache, amongst a range of other advanced capabilities.
Australia is extremely active in forming and participating in, and indeed driving, defence and security alliances, partnerships and cooperative arrangements in the Indo-Pacific region. These include the recently announced AUKUS, the “Quad” with India, Japan and the US, the ANZUS Treaty with NZ and the US, which held its 70th anniversity in September 2021, the “Five Powers Defence Arrangement” with Malaysia, NZ and the UK, which obliges members to “consult” in the event of external threats against Malaysia and Singapore (but not to the other members), and ever-strengtheing bilateral arrangements with Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and others, including Fiji and other Pacific Island countries. Australia is also enhancing the latter through increased “soft power” via international development aid, the so-called “Pacific Step-up.”
“The generally low priority placed on defence investment by successive Canadian governments and an over-reliance on the US umbrella has not helped.”
By contrast, despite being a Pacific nation and being no less vulnerable to security threats in the Pacific as outlined above, Canada is notably “missing in action” from all of the above arrangements. Canada is also largely missing from the Pacific in terms of international development aid, with only US$11.86 million spent in the Pacific Islands in 2019 compared to Australia’s US$865 million, NZ’s US$253 million and China’s US$169 million that year (here).
The last major Canadian effort in the region was the highly successful and much acclaimed Canada-South Pacific Ocean Development Program (C-SPOD), which ran from 1990 through 2004. The program assisted all 14 Pacific Island countries that are members of the Pacific Islands Forum with ocean governance, marine resource management, sustainable fisheries and maritime industries.
I had the pleasure of working with C-SPOD for two years on the maritime element, based out of Samoa. Canada’s pragmatic approach to development aid, which was more responsive to the needs and priorities of island countries than many other programs, is sorely missed in the region today. Canada’s standing and influence in the region are much diminished by its much reduced presence.
Canada does participate, with relatively small numbers of personnel (tens to hundreds), in Pacific-based muliti-lateral exercises such as the US-led biennial RIMPAC and the Australian-led biennial Exercise Talisman Sabre, and in 2021 Canada joined the US-led exercise Sea Dragon off Guam. Since 2005, the CAF and the NZ Defence Force have run CANZEX (Canada New Zealand Exchange), a small program that enhances cooperation and interoperability in training, operations and human resources. The CAF also runs the Military Training and Cooperation Program (MTCP) with a number of Asian countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea and Singapore, with a focus on peace support operations and military staff training, – mainly English courses – rather than high-end warfighting.
Originating in World War II, the ABCANZ Armies Program (American, British, Canadian, Australian and NZ) is aimed at optimising interoperability and standardisation between the armies, and there are similar “standardisation” arrangements for the same countries’ air forces, navies, and military communications and technology sectors, all legacies of World War II.
However, Canada does not undertake these activities under any formal treaty or alliance agreements. Canada’s participation is operational and largely ad hoc, based on “customary practice” and technical engagement. As outlined above, Canada’s defence treaty obligations are limited to NATO and NORAD, with nothing extending to the Indo-Pacific.
Given shared and common histories, values and interests, from time to time various parties have called for Canada to join ANZUS (to become CANZUS), and for all five of the core Anglo-sphere nations to form something like a CANZUKUS, expanding the “Five Eyes” intelligence arrangements into a more all-encompassing, treaty-based military alliance with mutual defence obligations. For various reasons such calls have not made traction. This is due in part to the concentration of Canada’s population, industry and government in the Atlantic-focused east, and a general lack of recognition amongst Canadians of their status, opportunities, and vulnerabilities as a Pacific nation. The generally low priority placed on defence investment by successive Canadian governments and an over-reliance on the US umbrella has not helped, as exemplified by Canada’s relative military placing against smaller Australia outlined above.
The announcement of AUKUS presents an opportunity to make another attempt to bring Canada more fully and formally into the joint Indo-Pacific security fold, perhaps as a member of a CAUKUS (a much better acronym than the “awkward” AUKUS), and also expanding ANZUS to become CANZUS or CANZUKUS. The benefits to all parties of having the added weight of a large democratic nation and developed economy like Canada join the alliances are obvious. Canada may not seek nuclear submarines as Australia is doing, but it will certainly benefit from the presence of Australia’s subs in the Pacific. Crewing those boats will be a huge challenge for Australia, and lateral recruitment from Canada, and NZ for that matter, could assist greatly in achieving the compliments needed, while providing hugely valuable training and experience to personnel from those friendly countries.
There are, of course, many other areas where Canada could contribute to and gain from CAUKUS, CANZUS and/or CANZUKUS – it is high time for the Aussies, Kiwis, Yanks, and the Poms to urge our Canuck cousins to “step up to the plate”, and to get fully with us in the Indo-Pacific.
Steve Raaymakers is a veteran practitioner in international development with a focus on environmental security, small island states, oceans governance and integrated marine resource management in the Asia–Pacific.