Canada’s Role in the Asia-Pacific Rebalance: Prospects for Cooperation

Canada's Role in the Asia-Pacific Rebalance
Prospects for Cooperation

by James Manicom
July 9, 2014

In this Asia Policy 18 advance release, James Manicom (CIGI) explores Canada’s role in the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and argues that tensions between the two countries’ foreign policy priorities may prevent a perfect North American marriage in the Pacific.



As the Obama administration’s rebalance enters its fourth year, Washington’s search for like-minded partners in the Asia-Pacific region continues. This article assesses Canada’s potential role in this economic, diplomatic, and military effort to link U.S. prosperity with that of the Asia-Pacific and outlines the scope of potential cooperation between the two countries. Canada is the U.S.’s longest-standing and closest ally and trading partner. Furthermore, the U.S. rebalance comes at a time when the government of Stephen Harper is preparing to re-engage the Asia-Pacific region. Nonetheless, U.S. policymakers should be circumspect in their expectations for Canadian contributions to regional security, despite the commonality of regional interests. Specifically, U.S. policymakers should be aware that Canada’s re-engagement with the Asia-Pacific is driven by a desire to reduce its trade reliance on the U.S.

  • If willing, Canada can support U.S. objectives in the Asia-Pacific by offering good offices, building capacity, promoting the rule of law, and improving regional and local governance, which improves the overall business climate.
  • U.S. policymakers should support Canadian overtures to regional institutions such as the East Asia Summit in a diplomatic style that is sensitive to regional trepidation.
  • U.S. policymakers should not expect overt Canadian support for any policy that will appear untoward in Beijing. Canada is unlikely to involve itself directly in the South China Sea dispute and will likely target its efforts to build its regional brand in less controversial issue areas.
  • Any Canadian capacity to contribute meaningfully to traditional security issues, like the South China Sea dispute, hinges on the perception that Canada is independent from the United States in the Asia-Pacific. The two countries should keep joint public statements on Asia-Pacific security to a minimum.

The United States and Canada have simultaneously reinvigorated their diplomatic and military postures toward the Asia-Pacific. As two of the world’s closest allies, it is worth exploring the possible synergies and tensions between these efforts in order to identify areas of possible policy coordination. Canada has considerable assets that could support U.S. diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific, including the legacy of its good offices in the region and its close ties with the U.S. military. On the surface, Canada seems a welcome partner for the United States as the Obama administration rebalances toward Asia. It is thus unsurprising that the two have recently established a senior officials dialogue on Asian security issues between the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development and the U.S. Department of State. However, there are multiple points of tension between the drivers of Canada’s re-engagement and U.S. foreign policy priorities in the region that may prevent a perfect North American marriage in the Pacific.

First, Canada’s diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific is driven by its desire to diversify away from the U.S. market. Although relatively innocuous in isolation, the politics of this shift, driven by growing concern in Canada about whether the United States remains a reliable market for energy exports, adds a layer of complexity. Second, Canada’s pursuit of closer economic ties with China could undermine its willingness to support the United States on tough regional security issues in the Asia-Pacific. Third, and related, overt support of U.S. security prerogatives is inconsistent with Canada’s legacy in the region, which is based on the appearance of independence from the United States. Therefore, Canada may not be an ideal Pacific partner for the United States. Policymakers in Washington should be aware of these points of tension, lest they assume that Canada can be relied on simply because of its support for the U.S. liberal international order. [1]

In order to assess the potential for coordinating U.S. and Canadian policies toward the Asia-Pacific, this article is organized as follows:

  • pp. 115–124, the first and second sections of this article, analyze the drivers of Washington’s and Ottawa’s shifts to Asia.
  • pp. 124–29, the third and fourth sections, then explore the case for and against Canada as a partner in the U.S. rebalance.
  • pp. 127–30 conclude that, on balance, U.S. policymakers should be circumspect in their expectations for Canadian contributions to regional security.

President Obama campaigned as a “Pacific president” and noted the importance of forging new partnerships in the region. [2] U.S. engagement with the Asia-Pacific was reinvigorated almost immediately upon his election by the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia established by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Two years later, the United States was invited to join the East Asia Summit, which has quickly emerged as the region’s leading institution. Explicit discussion of a “pivot” began the same year amid heightened concerns in Washington and the region about Chinese maritime assertiveness and growing regional instability. This followed multiple confrontations between Chinese and U.S. vessels in regional waters in 2009, hostilities on the Korean Peninsula in 2010, and the deterioration of the region’s maritime sovereignty disputes in the South and East China Seas. Amid the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has adamantly restated Washington’s commitment to peace and stability in East Asia. [3] The rebalancing is designed to reassure allies and adversaries that the United States, notwithstanding its economic challenges, takes a serious interest in the stability of the Asia-Pacific. It is first and foremost a rhetorical exercise, however, as most observers agree that the United States never “left” Asia during its engagement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. [4]

President Obama’s visit to Asia in November 2011 was the first unequivocal statement that the United States intends to remain the hegemonic power in East Asia. The visit followed eighteen months of accelerated U.S. diplomatic activity in the region during which U.S. senior officials articulated their regional interests—freedom of navigation and a peaceful resolution of disputes—and reassured allies of the continued U.S. military presence in Asia. To alleviate concerns about the United States’ capacity to maintain its regional military posture in light of its economic problems, senior U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that cuts to defense spending will not come at the expense…


[1] See, for instance, Bruce Gilley, “Middle Powers during Great Power Transitions: China’s Rise and the Future of Canada-U.S. Relations,” International Journal 66, no. 2 (2011): 245–64.

[2] Barack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs 86, no. 4 (2007): 2–16.

[3] Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011,

[4] There is considerable debate here, but it is widely recognized that the United States’ neglect was diplomatic rather than military. See T.J. Pempel, “How Bush Bungled Asia: Militarism, Economic Indifference and Unilateralism Have Weakened the United States across Asia,” Pacific Review 21, no. 5 (2008): 547–81; Michael J. Green, “The United States and Asia after Bush,” Pacific Review 21, no. 5 (2008): 583–94; and Dustin Walker, “5 Questions for Randy Forbes,” RealClearDefense, November 13, 2013,

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