By Murray Brewster
It was one of those startling warnings that we have become all too accustomed to ignoring, if anyone in Canada noticed it at all.
Maybe it just formed part of the white noise of international crises lately. Maybe it is just too far away, too absent of direct interests for policy-makers in this country to wrap their heads around, or even care.
Besides, the world is on fire elsewhere. There are clearly sexier conflicts — brighter, shiny objects — to occupy our attention.
The fact the words were uttered wasn’t news, as much as the fact that the warning came in public from one of the most senior U.S. military commanders.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander said late last year that there was a significant possibility of an arms race in the South China Sea, one that could engulf the region.
Warnings of an arms race seem banal and almost quaint in light of the fact that by Canadian and most of the world’s standards, nations bordering the disputed territory are already armed to the teeth. It was what Admiral Scott Swift said next that made a number of people sit up and take notice.
Nations become increasingly tempted to use military force to settle territorial spats instead of international law.
“My concern is that after many decades of peace and prosperity, we may be seeing the leading edge of a return of “might makes it right” to the region,” Swift said on December 15, 2015.
It didn’t take long for the first part of Swift’s prophecy to be fulfilled. In late February, Australia delivered its long-awaited white paper, which plans for a U.S. $21-billion defence spending increase in the coming decade with most of it going towards the navy, and in particular a renewed submarine fleet.
Australia singled out China and its decision to reclaim ocean territory through the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea as a major reason for the rearmament — something that drew an outraged response from Beijing.
China claims most of the South China Sea, a body of water through which more than $5 trillion worth of cargo passes through each year, a fifth of it heading to and coming from the U.S., Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also claim parts of the ocean in that region.
Seven man-made islands are being constructed by Beijing on reefs in the Spratly Islands, and according to satellite surveillance that a 3,000-metre-long airstrip has been built one of the sites.
Swift says commercial and military ships and aircraft operating near the islands — in full compliance with international law — have faced gratuitous warnings and threats.
One of his predecessors, retired admiral Dennis Blair, had an even starker assessment in June. He warned of a limited war with China over further dredging in one region known as the Scarborough shoal.
The Philippines asked The Hague to affirm its right to ocean territory within 200 nautical miles of its shores. China has rejected the international court’s jurisdiction and boycotted hearings.
The decision, rendered in July, was withering.
The international panel says China’s claim of sovereignty over the region had no legal basis. It recommended Beijing reconsider its tactics — or risk being labelled an outlaw nation.
Canada is in the throes of its own major defence policy review, but there has been little attention paid — at least publicly — to the dispute and even less condemnation from either the old Conservative, or the new Liberal government.
It took nine days for the Global Affairs Canada department to issue a statement.
Harjit Sajjan, the defence minister, attended the recent Singapore defence summit and, according to insiders, was greeted warmly, but with the understanding that Canada has often been absent from the Pacific dialogue.
Both Vietnam and the Philippines have quietly reached out in academic and semi-official government circles for two years hoping to get Canada more involved or at least raise the profile of the issue in a country that occasionally takes pains to describe itself as a Pacific nation. But perhaps that’s only when it suits certain political interests, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
To give the Conservatives credit, they issued a press release in late 2013, expressing “concern” about China’s establishment of an air defence identification zone around the dispute territory. In the blizzard of condemnation that seemed to spew from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s office on any given subject on any given day, it hardly registered on the Richter Scale of rhetoric and was therefore hard to spot.
The internal analysis of the seminal event seems limited to a regurgitation of the tension between China and Japan, which led to the establishment of the air defence zone, and blindingly obvious statements.
“More broadly the rise of China is reshaping the strategic landscape in Asia,” said a November 28, 2013 internal briefing at Global Affairs Canada. The diplomats were quick to note how China had taken “particular exception” to Australia’s public rebuke over the new policy, leaving an inference that it should somehow guide Ottawa’s response. Hence, we were concerned, not outraged.
So, what’s with the reticence? And more pointedly, what was with the kid gloves of the Conservatives?
Interestingly, on the exact same day — November 28, 2013 — foreign affairs analysts were wringing their hands on how to word Canada’s response, a military-to-military meeting was being held across town involving the director of the Strategic Joint Staff, at the time Major General Mike Hood, and delegation from the People’s Liberation Army, where they were talking closer defence cooperation. The previous August the Harper government had quietly signed a cooperation plan initiative, the intention of which was to normalize contacts “ultimately contributing to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” according to the tasking order drawn up by former chief of defence staff, now-retired General Tom Lawson.
“There is interest in greater contact with the PLA as it complements the Government of Canada-led efforts to broaden our bilateral relationship with China,” said the March 31, 2014 order.
Militarily, the Chinese were interested in talking to the Canadians about expertise and lessons learned in humanitarian operations, peacekeeping, search and rescue, and — ironically — maritime security as well as counter-piracy. They also wanted mid-level officer and academic exchanges through the Canadian Forces College and the Royal Military College.
And all of that was going on under a Conservative government, not exactly known for its warm and fuzzy relations with Beijing — at least initially.
Canada has a decades-old policy of constructive engagement with China, dating back to Trudeau the senior.
Trade was the principal preoccupation of the Chrétien Liberals in the 1990s when it was politely and somewhat politically unfashionable in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. In case you haven’t noticed, the new Trudeau government has reworked political strategies from Chrétien’s day.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he intends to lead a major trade mission to China with the goal of achieving “a pivotal free-trade deal.”
During his recent visit ahead of the G20 meeting, it became clear that a free trade deal with China remains an aspirational goal.
Human rights was the big political stumbling block for Chrétien’s China policy 20 years ago, and if you read the latest Human Rights Watch report there has been little improvement despite assurances that liberalized trade would bring liberalized institutions.
“China remains an authoritarian state, one that systematically curbs fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion, when their exercise is perceived to threaten one-party rule,” said the 2015 report.
The report did say that since the new leadership assumed power in 2013 authorities have instituted “positive steps in certain areas,” including abolishing the arbitrary detention system known as Re-education Through Labor.
“But during the same period, authorities have also unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years — an alarming sign given that the current leadership will likely remain in power through 2023.”
Trudeau in his quest for a free trade deal is only weighed down with the same human rights baggage as Chrétien, but also faced with a militarily assertive China, one that has stated for the record that it does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Court of Arbitration — or by extension the United Nation’s Law of the Sea Convention, at least in this dispute.
In her vivid account of the run-up to the First World War, historian Margaret MacMillan argued convincingly that one of the factors that sent the great powers tumbling into catastrophe was they had grown complacent about the series of crises that gripped Europe and they figured the assassination of the Archduke of Austria would somehow be sorted out.
They also believed, given each other’s heavy dependence on trade with one another, it would be madness to fight a war.