Today President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison will announce that the United States, Britain, and Australia have agreed to form a new working group to share key information in artificial intelligence, cyber, underwater systems, long-range strike capabilities, and even nuclear-defence infrastructure. While the People’s Republic of China will not be mentioned in the formal announcement, it is clear that this new working group with its awkward acronym is part of a larger effort to push back against the growth of Chinese military power in the Asia Pacific. So why is Canada, which has a deep interest as an ally of the United States in the emerging competition between the US and China, not a member?
Canadians should not be surprised that there is no “CA” in AUKUS. First, the new group very much reflects the purposefully limited scope of this initiative. While all Western states with alliance links to the US have an interest in the information that will be shared by AUKUS, the Biden administration has included only two allies in this particular group. Japan and South Korea, both staunch American allies, are not members. Nor are Canada and New Zealand, even though both have alliance links to the US, Britain, and Australia: both are members of the Five Eyes, a five-power intelligence alliance; New Zealand has a military alliance with Australia and the US in ANZUS; and Canada is allied to both the United States and Britain via the North Atlantic Treaty. America’s other NATO allies in Europe are not included, even though all NATO members have a broad interest in the evolving relationship between the United States and China.
That Canada is not a member of AUKUS is very much in keeping with history: governments in Ottawa have persistently avoided the kind of geostrategic engagement in the Asia Pacific that membership in a group like AUKUS would require. Even though Canadian politicians routinely claim that Canada is a “Pacific nation,” our engagement in the Pacific has been limited. We have never been a member of a Pacific alliance, for example, even though Canadian forces fought in Korea and Canada remains a strong supporter of the American-led alliance architecture in the Asia Pacific.
Indeed, I have characterized Canada’s ambivalence towards serious geostrategic involvement in the Pacific as a function of the degree to which Canada continues to be “anchored” by its engagement in the North Atlantic. This North Atlantic anchor means that no Canadian government, Liberal or Conservative, has any desire to become active in the Pacific — particularly no interest in all the huge costs that taking the Pacific seriously would involve.
This is particularly true of the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau. Even though Canadian foreign and defence policy has been fundamentally buffeted by the changes in the global geostrategic environment since the Trudeau government took office in 2015 — the emergence of an assertive and often belligerent China under President Xi Jinping and the concomitant transformation of American global leadership during the presidency of President Donald J. Trump — one would not know it from the Trudeau government’s foreign policy. The Trudeau government has worked assiduously to avoid grappling with the profound changes in global politics, and the implications these changes pose for Canada. Because AUKUS screams great-power competition (which, by the way, is precisely why Johnson and Morrison, for their own particular reasons, were so keen to join the Biden administration in this initiative), it is that geostrategic element that prompts the Trudeau government to avoid AUKUS.
There is also a more partisan political reason for Canadian hesitation. AUKUS is just the kind of “Anglosphere” project that has been embraced by the Conservative Party of Canada since 2017. In particular, the present CPC leader, Erin O’Toole, has embraced an Anglosphere variant, CANZUK, promising that a Conservative government would work with the governments of Britain, Australia, and New Zealand to encourage free trade, the movement of people, enhanced defence and security partnerships, and “expanded intelligence cooperation especially in the areas of cyber-warfare and critical infrastructure support.” Given O’Toole’s support for CANZUK, it would be highly unlikely that a Liberal government would embrace a project embraced by the leader of the opposition, particularly not during an election. (I would add, however, that even if Mr O’Toole were to end up as prime minister after 20 September, it is unlikely that his enthusiasm for Anglosphere projects in the Asia Pacific would lead a Conservative government to prevail against the inertia of the North Atlantic anchor.)
In short, we should not be surprised that Canada is not a member of this new security partnership; indeed, it would have been entirely out of character for a government in Ottawa, particularly the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, to take the kind of geostrategic step that AUKUS involves.