Written by James Manicom.

East Asia simultaneously presents the greatest opportunity for Australian prosperity and the greatest threat. If the region continues to avoid conflict over the bevy of active territorial and maritime disputes while maintaining its growth trajectory, there is considerable scope for the Australian economy to continue to prosper. However, if the region surrenders to its base instincts and allows nativist pressures to trigger conflict over intrinsically worthless rocks, the prosperity that has defined the Asian Century – and made Australia “the lucky country” – will evaporate.

Australia is thus confronted with the same conundrum as other states in East Asia: how to encourage the emergence of a responsible China while hedging against the possibility of failure. Despite Australia’s prominence in the American ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific, it is also understood that US allies in the region must cooperate amongst themselves and with a diverse array of security partners. For instance, Japan has deepened naval ties with India and increased its capacity building efforts in the Philippines and Vietnam. For its part, Australia is improving defence ties with Japan and India. This is in some ways a reflection of the evolution of Canberra’s thinking on the regional security situation since the Rudd government eschewed closer defence ties with these countries in 2007 for fear of alienating China.

In this context, Australian leaders may consider Canada an appropriate interlocutor in its efforts to ameliorate the security situation in the region. Despite pressures to engage in overt balancing of China, Australia has been a leader among Western countries in engaging Beijing. Canada seeks to strike a similar balance as it refocuses its trade agenda on the Asia-Pacific. Canadian leaders are increasingly aware of the necessity of contributions to regional security to augment its ambitious trade agenda. Canada has recently initiated a strategic dialogue with the United States on Asia-Pacific security and has deepened defence ties with Japan. Furthermore, Canada and Australia are equidistant from the security hotspot of Northeast Asia and both are eager participants at the biannual Rim of the Pacific military exercise. Although in some sense Canada and Australia are competitor economies, they are like-minded countries with robust democratic and internationalist traditions.

Deeper cooperation and consultation on regional security matters can be achieved by 1) cooperative military engagement with appropriate target countries 2) key messages on issues of common interest 3) coordinated engagement efforts to avoid redundancies.

In the first instance, Canada and Australia could engage Northeast Asian countries bilaterally through trilateral naval exchanges. Australia has already conducted joint exercises with Chinese, Japanese and South Korean navies. Canadian participation in such an endeavour deepens Western engagement of China and is consistent with Ottawa’s recent efforts to deepen military exchanges with China. Similarly, the two could regularize exercises and exchanges with the Japanese and South Korean navies in an effort to improve cooperation between US regional allies. Canada’s large scale deployment to the Pacific, planned for late 2013, was regrettably shelved following a collision between two navy ships, much to the dismay of those calling for a strengthened Canadian naval presence in East Asia.

Second, and following from the first, Canada and Australia should develop common protocols and political messages in regional issues on which they have common ground. This includes common language concerning human rights and rule of law, people smuggling and human trafficking, investment from state-owned enterprises and, in particular, common language on greater market access for Canadian and Australian companies. The logic for such an approach is self-evident: it is the most effective way to ‘socialize’ countries in the region into Australian and Canadian political and economic preferences. Similarly, the two countries could, in conjunction with their US and Japanese counterparts, develop common protocols for engaging with the Chinese Navy. All governments in the region recognize that engaging the Chinese military is important, but not always possible for all. Developing common standards of transparency that are supported by key allies and partners increases their comfort with engagement of China while preventing China from playing one off against the other. Canada has a particularly important role to play as one of the few NATO countries with a presence in the Pacific.

Finally, Canada and Australia could coordinate engagement efforts to better avoid double handling of tough policy issues. In 2012 Canada allocated funding to combat people smuggling and organized crime in Thailand and Southeast Asia, an area where Australia has been active for some time. This Canadian effort may have well intentioned and compatible with Canadian interests, but may also have done little to augment an area that is already well resourced by others. Asia’s capacity gaps are many and Canada and Australia have common assets and no shortage of good intentions. Policy coordination on regional engagement will maximize the impact of their respective efforts, even as Australia’s resources allocated to the effort dwarf Canada’s. Australia and Canada have many existing mechanisms through which to pursue closer policy coordination. They are both members of the Five Eyes intelligence community, and have recently inaugurated a strategic dialogue and hold an annual public policy discussion between bureaucrats.

In short the strategic rationale for Australia-Canada security cooperation in the region is that it 1) supports regional stability, 2) supports the hedging strategies of the United States and Japan, both important friends of Canada and Australia, and 3) presents an opportunity to strengthen communication of policy preferences to countries in the region.

James Manicom is a Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Canada. In cooperation with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, CIGI will present their report “Facing West, Facing North: Canada and Australia in East Asia” to the Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum in Melbourne in February 2014.