Brian Stewart: Will Canada follow the U.S. into China's seas?

China's rapidly expanding navy has provoked a shift in U.S. strategic interests to the Western Pacific and Canada is probably going to be dragged along, Brian Stewart writes. Beijing is not amused.

This summer, the largest international naval exercise in the world will see Canada's navy take on the second-largest role and Canadian officers share key commands — a remarkable prominence that Ottawa seems uncharacteristically reluctant to boast about.

Why so shy? Well, the exercise is called Rim of the Pacific or RIMPAC 2012. It is held every two years and is primarily concerned with a potentially hostile China — and Beijing is hardly pleased.

China's antipathy toward this exercise may explain why highly informed Canadian reporters, such as David Pugliese of Defence Watch, have complained of an almost total clampdown on information about Canada's impressive participation.

The federal government no doubt finds it a bit sensitive to be wooing Chinese business interests one moment, while embracing efforts to contain China's naval ambitions the next.

Of course the 22 nations, which are sending 47 surface ships and subs as well as possibly 200 aircraft and 25,000 personal, deny that their combined five-week exercises, beginning June 29, has China's rapidly expanding navy in mind.

But no one is fooled, least of all Beijing.

China and North Korea are the only countries excluded from the exercise — at Washington's insistence. Even Russia is to take part for the first time.

Obama's 'pivot'

RIMPAC is held every two years, but this one is significantly larger than the last and shows the growing strategic interest in the Pacific by a number of countries, the U.S. in particular.

China's defence spending, the second highest after the U.S., is set to rise 11 per cent in 2012 to $106 billion, according to recent reports. (Reuters)

January saw President Barack Obama set out his famous "pivot" in U.S. foreign policy, designed to turn America's strategic interests away from its traditional preoccupations with Europe and the Middle East and toward the Pacific.

It is a shift in which Canada may decide it has little choice but to follow suit, and RIMPAC would show the way.

A decade ago, under the Liberals, Canada sent only three small mine-clearing vessels and a few aircraft to this exercise.

This summer it is sending six surface vessels including a fast destroyer and frigate, plus the submarine Victoria, and soldiers for landing exercises. The air component will include CF-18 fighters and a mix of helicopter and patrol aircraft.

This represents, by a substantial margin, the second-largest contingent — larger than Australia, Japan or any other Pacific Rim nation — after the giant American force, which will include the aircraft super-carrier USS Nimitz.

Sending a message

What is also striking about this year's exercise is the way in which the U.S. has gone out of its way to involve more nations and spread command responsibilities, usually tightly held by Americans, among the other participants.

This, too, is part of the Obama shift that would have other nations join this new U.S. focus with an increased effort of their own, including shared leadership, to ensure the "security and stability" of Asia.

In a nod to Canada's contribution and experience in coalition warfare in the past, Canadian officers are being given unusually high responsibilities — including deputy command of the whole task force and, for Brig.-Gen. Michael Hood, command of the large air component.

In strategic terms, the main point of these exercises is not so much about a future all-out war with China.

It's really more to find ways to counter China's ability to use its growing arsenal of anti-ship missiles, aircraft and submarines to negate the influence of the U.S. and its allies in the Western Pacific.

Pentagon planners call it A2/AD for "anti-access/area denial."

The way China is progressing, the thinking goes, it may become strong enough to checkmate U.S. power across the Western Pacific and turn itself into the new maritime warden over some of the world' s most important sea lanes.

RIMPAC hopes to reassure nervous Pacific nations that a show of collective strength can prevent this from happening.

Step it up

China's defence budget is the world's second largest, behind America's, and big enough to provide, within a decade, for many thousands of new anti-ship missiles, more than 60 conventional subs and six nuclear attack ones to go along with its impressive force of missile-cruisers and destroyers.

But the apparent rush to support RIMPAC this year may also be tied to heightened jitters over China's recent claims of economic interest in the South and East China seas, where its ships have clashed over rich territorial rights with vessels from Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and the Philippines.

Given the vital importance of the Pacific region to the whole global economy, and the number of flashpoints there (from the dangerous Korean Peninsula to territorial disputes in South East Asia and piracy) a growing number of countries are starting to consider mutual defence alliances.

This is a development predicted in a strategic-options paper called The Strategic Outlook for Canada, written by George Petrolekas and Paul Chapin of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute (CDAI) last fall and much discussed in Ottawa defence and foreign policy circles.

It raised the question of how Canada should respond to pressure to play a larger military role in a new Pacific security coalition — a pertinent question in that Canada has never really had a clear Pacific strategy to begin with.

Chances are the Stephen Harper government will seek to keep any new alliances involving some of those RIMPAC nations informal, but we'd be foolish not to notice that Washington is gearing up to insist that we increase our military contributions in the Pacific at the same time.

Canada's sterling service in Afghanistan bought Ottawa a respite from Washington's repeated tongue-lashings over our puny defence spending (never more than 1.3 percent of GDP, despite our NATO pledge of two per cent).

But with Afghanistan now yesterday's news and the Pacific the new focus for Washington, the U.S. ambassador to NATO recently blasted Canada, specifically, and other alliance slackers for placing "an unfair burden on those who spend the resources."

Ottawa best get used to such dressing downs, along with the strong message that positioning more of our ships and planes in the Pacific would be the best way to meet our coalition obligations.

Caught between Washington's nagging and Beijing's displeasure, the federal government understandably wants to say as little as possible at this point about our Pacific commitments.

But in the world of military alliances, actions always speak far louder than words.