Why Does Canada Need an Indo-Pacific Strategy as Part of Its Foreign Policy?

  • Published
  • By Dr. Stephen R. Nagy


From North Korea’s nuclear and missile program to China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS), to brawls in the Himalayan plateau and threats to unify Taiwan by force, the Indo-Pacific region is home to a cauldron of geopolitical challenges and rapid transformation.

Many Canadians see the plethora of problems in the Indo-Pacific region through the NIMBY lens—Not in My Back Yard so it is not our problem. In reality though, what happens in the Indo-Pacific matters for Canada. This is especially the case if China is successful in creating and shaping “an ideological environment conducive to its rise and counter Western values.”1 If successful, Canada will be less secure, less prosperous, and more vulnerable to a might-is-right approach to regional and international affairs.

North Korea and Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation

Take for example nuclear and missile development in North Korea. While not targeted at Canada, the flight paths of missiles aimed at the United States fly over Canadian territory. Intercepting the intercontinental ballistic missiles or an accident over Canadian airspace could lead to collateral damage on Canadian territory. Significantly, North Korea’s missiles not only target the United States, Canada’s biggest and most important trading partner, but also like-minded allies like Japan.

North Korean missile and nuclear weapon development is also problematic because of the proliferation risk to both state and nonstate actors. In fact, Pyongyang has previously attempted to earn hard currency by selling nuclear technologies to Syria and Libya and possibly other nonstate actors in the Middle East.2

Canada has a vested interest in defending our allies in the region and preventing proliferation. Since October 2017, Canada has engaged in maritime surveillance operations as part of Operation NEON to enforce UN-mandated sanctions on North Korea.3 Ottawa also spearheaded middle-power diplomacy, such as the January 2018 Vancouver foreign ministers’ meeting on security and stability on the Korean Peninsula.4

South China Sea, Trade, and Sovereignty

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD),5 an estimated 60 percent of maritime trade travels through the SCS with an estimated value of at least USD 5.3 trillion dollars.6 Hand in hand with large volumes of trade, more than 30 percent of global maritime crude oil moves through the SCS a year.7 Canada’s trade value through the SCS was USD 21.8 billion in 2016—or 2.76 percent of all goods.8

The SCS is the most important sea line of communication (SLOC), serving the most dynamic economies in the world. This critical role in the regional and global economy is currently at risk, as Beijing has labeled the SCS part of China’s core interests, claiming this expansive body of water as part of China’s sovereign territory.9 Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam contest Beijing’s claims. Moreover, Canada, the United States, Japan, and other countries consider the SCS as international waters and subject to international law. With China’s building and militarization of artificial islands in the SCS10 and Beijing’s growing track record of gray-zone operations against other claimants in the SCS,11 the chances for an accidental escalation into a regionalized or larger-scale kinetic conflict increases day-by-day.

As Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia are all destinations for Canada agriculture products and natural resources, what happens in the SCS matters and Canada has a deeply vested interest in guaranteeing that it is governed by in a common set of rules. This determination to realize and re-enforce a rules-based order in the SCS and broader Indo-Pacific region ensures that a transparent set of rules, not power as the adjudicator or states’ behavior, govern Canadian interests in the region.

The East China Sea and Taiwan on the Frontlines of Regional Revisionism

The territorial issues in the SCS should not be seen in isolation. The strait between Taiwan and China and the ECS is also part of the broader SLOC puzzle that Canada has a vested interest in solving to ensure the region’s stability and security.

In the ECS, China continues to challenge Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku islands, using lawfare and gray-zone operations. In the case of the former, the adoption of a new Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) Law allows for the use of force by constabulary units in regions Beijing considers Chinese territory.12 This extension of China’s domestic law into Japan’s waters greatly complicates Tokyo’s ability to respond appropriately to Chinese pressure without being seen as escalating an altercation. With China’s Active Defense strategy stressing reciprocation to actions against China,13 one could easily see how an incident in Japan’s sovereign territory could escalate into a conflict that would not remain confined to Japan and China.

Article 5 of the US–Japan alliance would be triggered bringing in the United States.14 With the United States involved, Australia and other US allies would be compelled to defend the United States and Japan, prompting a multilateral conflict. The associated cascade of negative consequences would have global economic repercussions.

China’s lawfare tactics in the ECS are not confined to the new CCG Law. In 2013 China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the region, which includes the Senkaku islands,15 and China regularly sends merchant vessels into the waters in and around the Senkaku islands to test and tire Japan’s defense forces and to delegitimize Japan’s sovereignty claims by eroding Japan’s administrative claims.16

After Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula by stealth, Beijing has been actively conceiving ways to achieve China’s strategic objectives to dominate the first and second island chains without the use of force. Japan is at the front lines of these efforts, but it is not alone. Taiwan also faces daily pressure by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).17 Fighter jets regularly circumnavigate Taiwan, first through the Miyako strait and then alongside the east coast of Taiwan to return to mainland China. The constant testing of Taiwanese defense degrades Taiwan’s long-term ability to deter China from forcefully reunifying the island with China by wearing down its equipment, preventing additional training, and through identifying defense weaknesses to China’s probing.

Japan and Taiwan are important trading partners for Canada. They are fellow democracies, and their success in ensuring that China does not use “a might is right” approach to reshape the region cannot be divorced from Canada’s long-standing interests in international institutions, international law as the final arbiter of interactions between states, and multilateralism. When Canada, along with like-minded countries, does not stand up to states that are provocatively reshaping regional and global institutions, it may one day face the same kind of tactics in its backyard. Consider the Canadian Arctic. Russia is already expanding its sovereignty claims in the region by planting Russian flags at the bottom of Arctic seabed.18

Hong Kong: The Canary in the Coal Mine?

China’s implementation of the 2020 National Security Law (NSL)19 in Hong Kong has eroded the guarantees of the 1984 Sino-British Declaration, which states the “rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”20 Just one year after the adoption of the NSL, Hong Kong’s press freedom ranking dropped from 18th to 80th,21 its independent judiciary and rule of law is compromised,22 and its free society is being dismantled, according to Human Rights Watch.23

This matters for Canada not just because more than 300,000 Canadian passport holders live and work in Hong Kong.24 It matters for Canada and the region as it represents the abrogation of an international agreement, namely the 1984 Sino-British Declaration. Seen alongside China’s rejection of the July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision dismissing all China’s claims in the SCS, such behavior raises serious questions about China’s commitment to international law and agreements.

Toward an Indo-Pacific Strategy in our Foreign Policy?

The contours of an Indo-Pacific strategy have already been laid out in the Canadian International Council’s virtual deliberation of the kind of foreign policy Canadians want.25 The results resonated closely with the 2021 Shared Canada-Japan Priorities Contributing to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which focused on: (1) the rule of law; (2) peacekeeping operations, peacebuilding, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; (3) health security and responding to COVID-19; (4) energy security; (5) free trade promotion and trade agreement implementation; and (6) environment and climate change.26

To get buy-in from Canadians, knowledge about the region and the impact of its developments on Canada is critical. China’s efforts to transform the region and international institutions, such as the NSL in Hong Kong, the future of Taiwan, events in the ECS and SCS, and North Korea’s nuclear program, are illustrative and important examples of issues and developments of which Canada needs to be mindful. Ottawa’s foreign policy needs to inculcate an Indo-Pacific strategy to maximize the opportunities that exist in the region and navigate the challenges and changes that are occurring. Doing so will require an independent Canadian brand so Ottawa is not just seen as a junior partner of Washington. Absent Ottawa’s own approach and priorities to the region, Canada will not be seen as an honest, independent stakeholder in the region.

Dr. Stephen R. Nagy

Dr. Nagy is a senior associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the International Christian University. Concurrently, he is a Research fellow the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) and a Visiting Fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). Previously he was selected as a Distinguished Fellow for the Asia Pacific Foundation from 2017–2020. Previously he was an assistant professor at the Department of Japanese Studies from December 2009 to January 2014. He obtained his PhD from Waseda University, Japan, in international relations in December 2008 and worked as a research associate at the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies at Waseda University from October 2007 to November 2009. His recent funded research projects are “Sino-Japanese Relations in the Wake of the 2012 Territorial Disputes: Investigating changes in Japanese Business’ trade and investment strategy in China,” and “Perceptions and drivers of Chinese view on Japanese and US Foreign Policy in the Region.” He is currently working on middle-power approaches to great-power competition in the Indo-Pacific.

1 Yan Xue Tong/阎学通, “In the new era of diplomacy, how does China make its own voice?/ 新时代外交,中国如何发出自己的声音?Xīn shídài wàijiāo, zhōngguó rúhé fāchū zìjǐ de shēngyīn?,” 15 July 2021,

2 Samuel Ramani, “The North Korean-Syrian Partnership: Bright Prospects Ahead,” 38 North, 23 March 2021,; and Mark Fitzpatrick, “North Korean Proliferation Challenges: The Role of the European Union,” Non-Proliferation Papers, No. 18 June 2012,

3 Department of National Defence, Government of Canada, “Operation NEON,” 2 February 2021,

4 Global Affairs Canada, Government of Canada, “Canada and United States to co-host Vancouver Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on Korean Peninsula,” 19 December 2017,

5 Review of Maritime Transport 2016 (New York: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2016),

6 China Power Team, “How Much Trade Transits the South China Sea?,” China Power, 25 January 2021,

7 Candace Dunn and Justine Barden, “More than 30% of global maritime crude oil trade moves through the South China Sea, Today in Energy, 27 August 2018,

8 China Power Team, “How Much Trade Transits the South China Sea?”

9 Feng Zhaokui, “What Are China’s Core Interests?,” China-US Focus, 21 October 2014,

10 Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Fiery Cross Reef,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 2021,

11 Christian Vicedo, “China’s PAFMM Grey Zone Maritime Challenge to the Philippines,” East Asia Forum, 13 August 2020,

12 “The Maritime Police Law of the People's Republic of China/Zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó hǎi jǐng fǎ/中华人民共和国海警法,”22 January 2021,

13 Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, “China's National Defense,” July 1998,

14 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Japan, “Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America,” 19 January 1960,

15 John Pike, “Air Defense Identification Zone,” Global Security, 12 March 2016,

16 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “The numbers of China Coast Guard and other vessels that entered Japan's contiguous zone or intruded into territorial sea surrounding the Senkaku Islands,” 4 August 2021,

17 Mike Yeo, “China sends largest group of military aircraft in single day near Taiwan,” Defense News, 16 June 2021,

18 C. J. Chivers, “Russians Plant Flag on the Arctic Seabed,” New York Times, 3 August 2007,

19 “The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” 2020,

20 “Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong,”

21 “Hong Kong,” Reporters without Borders, 2021,

22 Lydia Wong and Thomas E. Kellogg, Hong Kong’s National Security Law: A Human Rights and Rule of Law Analysis (Washington, DC: Center for Asian Law, 2021),

23 “Dismantling a Free Society: Hong Kong One Year after the National Security Law,” Human Rights Watch, 25 June 2021,

24 Government of Canada, “Canada-Hong Kong fact sheet,” 23 December 2019,

25 Hanna Hett, “What kind of foreign policy do Canadians want?,” Open Canada, 15 July 2021

26 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Japan, “Shared Japan-Canada Priorities Contributing to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” n.d.,


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