Wednesday, July 8, 2020
John Ivison: A more dangerous world looms. Will Canada, freighted with pandemic debt, be ready?
China has exploited the fragility created by COVID to accelerate its political annexation in the South China Sea and Hong Kong.
Opposition to its belligerence has been met with disdain. After Canada suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, in the wake of China’s radical new security law, the Chinese threatened retaliation. “All consequences shall be borne by the Canadian side,” said a government spokesman Monday.
The geopolitical world after COVID promises to be a meaner, more dangerous place – and it’s not clear that Canada is prepared for it from a diplomatic or military point of view.
What is clear is the massive accumulation of fresh debt, as Canada navigated its way through the pandemic. Bill Morneau, the finance minister, will provide the exact dimensions of the mountain we have to climb with his fiscal “snapshot” on Wednesday. At some point that debt will have to be paid off.
In tough times, governments have traditionally cut their way back to balance. One of the first budgets scrutinized is the department of National Defence, since it spends more than anyone ($22 billion, according to the last public accounts). In the mid-1990s, Jean Chrétien’s government chopped defence spending by one third. In its deficit reduction action plan after the financial crash of 2008, the Harper government cut $1 billion a year from DND’s budget, while asking it to find $1 billion more in savings.
The prospect of history repeating itself is causing concern in defence circles.
Some think the Liberals might renege on the commitment to buy 88 new fighter jets, at a cost of around $19 billion, and perhaps even on the promise to spend a further $60 billion on a national shipbuilding strategy that seeks to build 15 new surface combatant vessels. “You don’t need fighter jets. If I was at DND, I’d be very worried about that project,” said one former defence official.
However, with the bids for the jets due at the end of the month from Saab, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the prevailing sense is that the government will proceed with the evaluation process.
“The Strong, Secure, Engaged exercise was the biggest boost in spending in our time and I’d be shocked if this government rolled any of it back,” said one person who was involved in the defence review.
Talking to retired generals and admirals, defence analysts, industry players, former politicians and DND insiders, there is some optimism that a more uncertain world might protect defence budgets this time.
Even the doves in the Liberal government were impressed with the deployment of Canadian Armed Forces personnel to help with pandemic relief in long-term care homes. The sense on the left is that Canada’s preparedness for disaster – be it weather, health or cyber-related – is greatly enhanced when you can call out the army to help. This sentiment is deplored by the Forces, which sees such assistance as expending deployment capability – though it may be preferred to budget cuts.
But the real reason why DND’s budget might prove more resilient during the coming fiscal storm is that Canadians have been genuinely spooked by China’s assertiveness and the seeming inevitability of Cold War Two.
That in turn is going to grab the attention of politicians, who have to this point been driven by the imperatives that defence spending doesn’t win votes and that no threat is so large that it can’t be handled by the U.S. Canadians, unnerved by Chinese aggression and American irresolution, might come around to the idea of a more vigorous defence policy.
Much will depend on Justin Trudeau’s response to events in Asia Pacific. Does Canada want to join allies like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the U.S. in playing an ongoing part in security arrangements in the Western Pacific?
According to people who know, the government hasn’t really considered this yet. Canada has been an intermittent player in the region, sending frigates to take part in Operation Neon, implementing sanctions on North Korea. One of Canada’s much-maligned Victoria class submarines, HMCS Chicoutimi spent nearly 200 days in the Western Pacific. But that was three years ago and a recent parliamentary question revealed that none of the four subs bought second hand from the U.K. in 1998 went to sea last year.
The government has spent billions re-fitting the subs and one former general said three of the four are “still useful”. But it is widely acknowledged that Canada should start the process to replace the Victoria class soon, given the likely 10-15 year period before any replacements become operational.
Even if Canada decides to limit its involvement in the Western Pacific, there is growing great power interest in the Arctic. As one defence strategist put it, “We would do well to keep an eye on the edge of the ice-pack, which may recede in years ahead and allow more foreign vessels to transit, including from China, which calls itself a ‘near-Arctic state’.”
When the Trudeau government undertook its defence review, it left submarines well alone, allowing the $2.5 billion re-fit to go ahead but not pushing for a replacement fleet.
Canada doesn’t have to look far for cautionary tales when it comes to buying submarines. Australia has spent 20 years and is on course to rack up a bill of $34 billion in its quest to build eight subs to replace its existing fleet.
But as the naval arms build up continues in Asia-Pacific, and Canada leads calls to uphold the rules of international law, there are few more useful assets than submarines.
The prospect of piggybacking on Australia’s efforts – perhaps even building new subs in Canadian yards might improve the chances of a replacement fleet.
At the end of the day, the Canadian Forces need to align with foreign policy – and that requires this government to take a long, hard look at its relations with China – and the U.S. – before setting its priorities.
The sense in military circles is that keeping China accountable cannot just be left to the powers that live in the neighbourhood – and that Canada should be part of reassurance and deterrence measures in the Western Pacific, in the same way it is in Europe as part of NATO.
Mark Norman, the retired Vice-Chief of Defence Staff, said that public support for an expanded military role in Asia Pacific appears to be developing.
“I’m very concerned at how things could go badly for defence – it is an easy target….But I’ve been struck by the growing sense – from those paying attention – of frustration with what China is doing. Whether that frustration represents a deeper understanding of the strategic implications, I don’t know. But from a policy perspective, Canadians are increasingly looking at China and saying ‘I don’t like what I’m seeing‘ and that is a strategic opening to have a conversation…There has to be an open conversation about China as a threat.”