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Canada and ASEAN Forge Strategic Partnership with Emphasis on Regional Security

A key focus of Canada’s new strategic partnership with Southeast Asian bloc ASEAN revolves around promoting security in the region as countries cope with an assertive China.

Themes of cooperation in the new partnership were presented on Sept. 6 at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Indonesia, which was attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

ASEAN and Canada have strategies that “share relevant fundamental principles in promoting an open, inclusive, transparent and rules-based regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific region, in which ASEAN is central,” says a joint statement issued by participating leaders.

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The first strategic area of mutual interest identified for cooperation, before trade and investments, is dubbed the “political-security community.”

The partnership seeks to “promote maritime security and safety, freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded commerce, mutual trust and confidence, the exercise of self-restraint, the non-use of force or the threat to use force, and the resolution of disputes by peaceful means.”

Several of the 10 countries in ASEAN have territorial disputes with China, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

“As a strategic partner, I hope Canada can become an anchor for peace and stability in the region that respects international law, and that encourages co-operation that are more concrete and inclusive, in particular in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo in welcoming Canada’s upgraded status with ASEAN.

ASEAN was founded in 1967 and Canada became a dialogue partner in 1977. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to establishing a strategic partnership while attending the ASEAN forum last year.

“We share clear commitments to peace and stability, openness and transparency, to development and economic co-operation, and to an understanding that international rules are essential for growth,” Trudeau said on Sept. 6 in commenting on Canada’s new status.

Trade and Investments

Other themes of the partnership include economic cooperation, with a mention of increasing engagement with Canadian pension funds.

Large funds have been scaling back their involvement in China in recent months. Canada’s largest pension fund, CPP Investments, has paused new investments in China, while the country’s second-largest pension fund, Quebec’s CDPQ, is expected to close its Shanghai office this year, reported Reuters.

The Chinese economy has been facing challenges and Western countries have also promoted “friend-shoring” after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in a bid to reduce economic reliance on non-democratic countries.

ASEAN and Canada also released a separate joint statement on strengthening food security in the context of global challenges such as “rising geopolitical tension and conflict, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global food security, the threat of climate change as well as natural disasters.”

While attending the summit, Mr. Trudeau also held bilateral meetings with his counterparts, including the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. lauded Canada for its increasing engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, calling it a “rather new development which we in the region find a rather fresh, prescient move on the part of Canada.” He called Canada’s shift of outlook towards Asia “significant.”

New Strategy

Canada released its Indo-Pacific Strategy last year, making a pivot towards the region and identifying China as a disruptive power.

International Trade Minister Mary Ng said on Sept. 5 that the new strategy and related initiatives explain the upgraded status with ASEAN, with countries noticing a “momentum” change with Canada’s approach.

Speaking alongside Ms. Ng, Canada’s Special Envoy for the Indo-Pacific Ian McKay called the new strategy the “biggest foreign policy shift in decades.”

He said this increased engagement will allow Canada to have a “more sophisticated bilateral relationship” with China.

Relations between Ottawa and Beijing have cooled since the Meng Wangzhou affair in late 2018 and the related arbitrary detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor by Beijing.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault was the first minister in four years to visit China last week to attend a regime-led environmental forum and attempt to improve relations.

The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

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