By: Elliot Cho

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just returned from his trip to China. While many are overjoyed with seeing Canadian firms signing trade deals worth billions of dollars, and Trudeau openly engaging with the Chinese leadership to discuss sensitive issues on human rights in China, the geopolitical rivalry between six nations—the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas, was largely overlooked by the Canadian media during his visit. Canada must pay closer attention to the polarization in East Asia. The Trudeau government must assess whether Canada is up to meeting the challenge in near future, and make necessary preparations.

Discussing the geopolitical rivalry in East Asia should begin with the concern over North Korea’s determination to be a nuclear power and the way the U.S. and its allies in the region are responding to this reckless endeavour. There were times when people felt North Korea’s ceaseless efforts to improve its nuclear weapons was a hoax.

But just a week ago, North Korea earned its fruit of labour in developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Experts now say that North Korea may soon develop a nuclear- powered submarine, capable of launching missiles with a nuclear warhead from the deep sea. North Korea showed off its military strength by launching three ballistic missiles into the sea while world leaders were gathering in China for the G20 summit.

Recently, Americans have responded to North Korea’s nuclear ambition with the announcement that they will be installing THAAD, a state-of-the-art missile defence system that is aimed to deter North Korean capability to threaten South Korea with long-range missiles. China has expressed concern for the radar that comes in tandem with the anti-ballistic missile system. China is extremely displeased because of the possibility of Americans using the radar system to monitor Chinese military activities in East Asia.

Russia also expressed anger over the American efforts to install the missile-defence system in South Korea. The Russian foreign ministry has warned that the system would “undermine the stability in the region” and urged the U.S. and South Korea not to take actions that may bring “irreparable consequences.” Russian experts predict that installation would pose a threat to Russian Strategic Missile Forces. Russia has already announced that it would deploy more long-range ballistic missiles to the Russian Far East.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe worked rigorously to amend the pacifist constitution, which prohibited Japan from deploying its self-defence force in overseas and involving directly in resolving disputes. After a decisive victory in last year’s election, the Abe government has not only amended the constitution; it has conducted a number of joint training exercises with the U.S. military.

Besides the ongoing territorial dispute between Japan and China over an island in the East China Sea, China has some reasons to take any Japanese effort to increase its military strength as an act of provocation. China has not forgotten the days when Japanese militarism was at its heights, and what the consequences were.

As discussed, all six major players in East Asia have a stake in this geopolitical rivalry. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former U.S. National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter, warns about the rivalry between Asian nations in his book Strategic Vision. He points out the ongoing national rivalry between East Asian states is similar to the imperial rivalry among the European states in the early 20th century.

He adds, “The new Asian rivalry could at some point threaten regional stability, a challenge heightened in its destructive potential by the massive populations of the Asian powers and the possession by several of them of nuclear weapons.”

In the meantime, Canada should perform a self-assessment to see if we have the capabilities to protect Canadian assets in East Asia, and work effectively with the countries in the region to facilitate peace and economic growth. The best Canada can do now is leave a good impression and the assurance that Canada will continue to openly engage with China and the other five countries on key issues including trade and human rights.

But if Canada intends to deepen economic cooperation with East Asia and fulfil our commitment to global peace, we should take more proactive role in maintaining peace and stability in the region. Such would be the right way to uphold the legacy of the great Canadian leaders of yesteryears, who brought us the glory of being the ‘honest broker’ and peacekeeper in the troubled regions of the world.

Elliot Cho is a graduate student majoring in Political Science at Carleton University. 

High Time for the “Canadian Pivot to Asia”