Acting Head of Centre, Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies
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Australia and Canada have been described as “strategic cousins” – two countries with much in common in terms of their foreign policy interests. Both are federal bicameral Westminster-style parliamentary democracies, predominantly English-speaking, New World melting pots with liberal, democratic, free-trading societies. Both have also carved out constructive middle-power roles for themselves in their past international engagement.
In spite of these similarities, the two countries have been on somewhat diverging paths in the extent to which Asia is prioritized in their trade and foreign policies. In brief, Asia has been a matter of primary importance to Australia, while Canada’s attention to the region has been described as inconsistent and less than comprehensive. Evolving economic and security dynamics in the Asia Pacific region might be about to change that, particularly as Canada takes steps toward a more serious re-engagement of the region. As part of this process, makers of Canadian foreign policy should consider how partnering with Australia could bolster its effectiveness.
**Canada-Australia Common Foundations ** Organizations such as the Association for Canadian Studies in Australia and New Zealand and the Canada-Australia Public Policy Initiative epitomize the broad spectrum of similarities and shared interests between Canada and Australia. Such bodies help identify and address shared policy challenges ranging from climate change, health, and transport to regional, rural, and indigenous issues. In addition, diplomatically, Australia and Canada collaborate closely, building on the Glasgow-Burchell declaration, sharing diplomatic reporting, providing extensive mutual consular support, and co-operating with development assistance. They are both part of the Five Eyes intelligence network (along with the U.K., U.S., and New Zealand), with its intimate ties, trusted network, and shared responsibilities.
When it comes to traditional security, Australia and Canada have both looked to the United States as their principal security benefactor for more than 75 years. In Canada’s case this has been largely as a “defence against help” from its much more powerful southern neighbour. In Australia’s case, with a deep-seated sense of insecurity, it has been about keeping the Americans close. Nonetheless, while approaching the United States, arguably from opposite angles, Canada and Australia on numerous occasions have found themselves alongside each other in some remote, hostile, and needy places around the world, such as Afghanistan. Indeed, the Canada-Australia commonalities in culture, language, and security ties are particularly evident when these countries’ armed forces work together.
There is a broad consensus within Australia’s national security apparatus that the best way for Australia to influence events and avoid the prospects of escalation is to remain a trusted and close partner of the United States, able to share its views frankly and firmly. Broadly speaking, this applies to Canada as well. At the same time, Australia and Canada must work to help the United States recognize the limits to its power and influence without triggering a more isolationist impulse. In the past, Australians and Canadians have tended to pursue this approach directly with the United States, independent of each other, but in these uncertain times the imperative for cross-pollination of ideas and collaborations between these strategic cousins is greater than ever.
One such reason for working more closely in engaging the U.S. is that while the United States remains the most significant security partner for both Canada and Australia, China has emerged as the largest trading partner for Australia and the second-largest trading partner for Canada. Many in Australia worry about what to focus on to maintain this potentially precarious balance, especially as the challenge of balancing economic and security interests is becoming more complex. For Australia, it is like walking a tightrope. Maintaining a balance requires a regional focus with like-minded countries such as Canada.
To read the entire article by Prof. John Blaxland, visit the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada website