The Canadian government was surprised this week by the announcement of a new security pact between the United States, Britain and Australia, one that excluded Canada and is aimed at confronting China’s growing military and political influence in the Indo-Pacific region, according to senior government officials.
Three officials, representing Canada’s foreign affairs, intelligence and defence departments, told The Globe and Mail that Ottawa was not consulted about the pact, and had no idea the trilateral security announcement was coming until it was made on Wednesday by U.S. President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The defence ministers from the U.K. and Australia reached out to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to inform him of the decision shortly before the late-afternoon announcement.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau received a call from his Australian counterpart. Daniel Minden, a spokesperson for Mr. Sajjan, said Ottawa had been kept in the loop on talks between the countries.
One of the Canadian officials referred to the pact as the new “Three Eyes” and said it’s clear that Canada’s closest allies consider Ottawa to be a “weak sister” when it comes to standing up to China.
Three Eyes is a reference to what is becoming a smaller club within the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, which includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The Five Eyes pact dates back about 75 years.
Members share signals intelligence gleaned from intercepted communications, as well as military intelligence and intelligence gathered directly from human sources.
The new trilateral alliance, dubbed AUKUS, after the initials of the three countries, will allow for greater sharing of information in areas such as artificial intelligence and cyber and underwater defence capabilities.
The U.S. and U.K. have also agreed to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines, which would allow it to conduct longer undersea patrols. Australia will become only the second country, after Britain in 1958, to be given access to U.S. nuclear propulsion technology.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday played down Canada’s exclusion from the Indo-Pacific security deal, saying it is merely a way for the U.S. to sell nuclear submarines to Australia.
Speaking to reporters in Montreal, Mr. Trudeau said Canada will still have access to defence and intelligence sharing as a member of the Five Eyes alliance.
“We continue to be strong members of the Five Eyes,” he said. “This is a deal for nuclear submarines, which Canada is not currently or any time soon in the market for. Australia is.”
Retired Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, who once commanded the Royal Canadian Navy, said Canada should have been part of this defence pact, which he described as a “somewhat unprecedented” trilateral arrangement.
He said he was surprised to hear Mr. Trudeau play down the pact as merely a submarine purchase deal. “I think it’s misleading and concerning … I would like to believe he was poorly briefed by his staff,” Mr. Norman said.
The retired naval flag officer said that, if Mr. Trudeau was fully briefed, “he doesn’t understand what is going on internationally and he doesn’t understand what the significance of an arrangement like this is as it relates to international security.”
He said the agreement goes far beyond access to U.S. submarine technology.
“This is about accessing both current and emerging technologies, from cyber and artificial intelligence, to acoustics and underwater warfare – a whole range of very important strategic capabilities.”
Mr. Norman said Canada has many national interests in the Indo-Pacific – including trade, promoting the rule of law and democracy, and countering China’s aggressive behaviour and posturing – but he suspects close allies do not take Canadian defence commitments seriously.
“I don’t think our allies think we are serious when it comes to defence. I think they have concerns not just about our defence expenditures, but also the extent to which our [international] commitments are both lasting and meaningful,” he said.
Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University, said the U.S.-U.K.-Australia defence pact is the latest evolution of military and intelligence co-operation between those three countries.
“Three Eyes is very real,” Professor Carvin said. “Australia is strategic in making its presence known in Washington, arguably much more than Canada despite it being geographically closer.”
She said Canada not being a part of the new agreement is consistent with the country’s low engagement in the Indo-Pacific. “We haven’t been part of a military alliance in the Pacific since the Korean War. And the government has never addressed the question of if this is still the correct security posture.”
The leaders of the Conservative and New Democratic parties criticized Mr. Trudeau for Canada’s exclusion from the pact. AUKUS, they said, could put added pressure on China to respect international norms and rein in its expansionism.
“This is another example that Mr. Trudeau is not taken seriously by our friends and allies around the world,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole told reporters at a campaign stop on Thursday. “Canada is becoming more irrelevant under Mr. Trudeau.”
Mr. O’Toole said he would seek to join the new Indo-Pacific security arrangement if the Conservatives are elected on Monday.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, speaking to reporters on Thursday, questioned whether Mr. Trudeau had given serious thought to the importance of the new trilateral pact while preoccupied with campaigning. By joining this arrangement, Canada could have ratcheted up pressure on China to free Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, Mr. Singh said.
“The pact seems like a potential avenue to add more pressure [on China]. Canada was absent. Another reason why this election should not have been called,” Mr. Singh told reporters.
The U.S., U.K., Australia and Indo-Pacific countries have been growing alarmed about how Beijing is rapidly modernizing its armed forces and increasing its military presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
China reacted harshly to the new partnership. The three countries are “severely damaging regional peace and stability,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki defended the U.S. decision, saying “we do not seek conflict with China.” Instead, she said, this is “about security in the Indo-Pacific.”
The submarine deal also represented a blow for France, because Australia intends to tear up a $40-billion agreement to buy French conventional submarines. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the loss of the deal a “stab in the back.”
Speaking at a news conference after meetings between the U.S. and Australian foreign and defence ministers in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said France remains a “vital partner” in the Indo-Pacific region.
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