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Should Canada Join AUKUS?

The Quick Answer is No.

Let’s start off by answering the question of what is AUKUS?

First, AUKUS stands for Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As best I can understand, AUKUS is a three-country defence pact that proposes the involved countries work together closely on several defence-related issues in the Pacific region, including the transfer of technology that would allow Australia to acquire nuclear submarines (henceforth to called SSN = Submersible Ship Nuclear).

It’s this last point that makes the AUKUS agreement so notable. Both the UK and the US have had nuclear submarines for decades. They are so complex and expensive, that there are very few countries that are able to take on the challenge of operating this type of machine.

It is in consideration of this challenge that it is remarkable that Australia has agreed to purchase and operate up to 12 SSNs. Australia is a country of nearly 26 million people and by the time all 12 of these submarines are up and running, it will be a country of around 34 million people. To say that it is ambitious for a country of this size to run a submarine force of this size and complexity is a massive understatement.  

But, should Australia be able to pull off this monumental challenge and field 10-12 of these vessels, it will be a massive step forward for the country as it pertains to its sovereignty and its ability to support and maintain trade and democracy across the entirety of the Pacific Rim. I’m not an expert, but by all accounts, the modern Western-built nuclear submarine is the most dangerous weapon on high seas, which because of its propulsion system can project its power anywhere in the world for periods of time that are only limited by the need for the vessel’s crew to be fed.

So, setting aside the colossal cost and logistical/industrial effort that confront Australia to secure these boats, there’s a very solid argument to be made this is the right move for the Aussies.

Recently, in Canada, the Conservative Party of Canada had its policy convention. This is the event where party members come together and vote to support a wide range of policy positions that the party may or may not build into its election platform.

I say may because those policies that are chosen at the Convention are non-binding to party leadership. Though policy proposals are non-binding, it is the case that approved proposals are more likely to influence or be incorporated wholesale into the Conservative Party’s election platform.

One of the policy proposals reads as follows:

The Conservative Party of Canada supports Canada’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the principle of collective security. A Conservative Government will work towards spending at least the NATO recommended two (2) percent of our GDP on National Defence.

As an Indo-Pacific nation, Conservatives support Canada joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD Group) for strategic military cooperation, as well as charting a path to membership in the new elite defence pact AUKUS.    

I have no truck with the first paragraph and have written on the topic of Canada increasing its defence spending at length. It is the second paragraph that I’d like to focus the rest of my attention on in the remainder of this post.

In the policy above there are two suggestions, I would like to take issue with. First, that Canada should join the QUAD, and second, that Canada should then look to join AUKUS.

Let’s start with the QUAD. What is it? It is an informal agreement between the countries of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and India that is focused on the potential of economically and militarily hemming in or even confronting China.

Let me be clear. Even if Canada wanted to join this grouping, I’m not sure it would be allowed to do so. In fact, I’m positive it wouldn’t be. Why? Well, the most obvious reason is that Canada has been a defence spending laggard for the past thirty years, plus its engagement in the region has been minimal over this time. Presumably, if the countries that are the QUAD are going to let a fifth country to join it, that country would have something to bring to the table. At this time and for the foreseeable future, this will not be Canada. At best, our joining the QUAD might add some reputational heft to the group, but such a contribution is both questionable and minimal.

Beyond our inability to contribute to the QUAD in any meaningful way, I would add that it is not in Canada’s national interest to tie itself to the US or India as it pertains to China. While Canada has many cultural ties to India, it is a very different country from Canada and as a result, our political interests are also hugely different.

For its own legitimate reasons, India walks a different path internationally. That Canada would align itself with India in a pseudo-military alliance that would in any way pre-determine or overly influence Canada’s actions in the Indo-Pacific is not in the Canadian interest. As I will argue below, in the Pacific region, Canada’s interest will be best served by engaging within its existing alliances (e.g., Five Eyes) and bilaterally or multilaterally in the moment, according to Canada’s own foreign policy interests.

In the case of the US, any formal agreement that involves Canada would result in the US having even more influence over Canadian foreign policy. You don’t have to look any further than Ukraine to see how US influence can play out in Ottawa. Yes, the US is a great ally, but in my view, we need fewer US-Canada formal entanglements, not more. We can still be a respected ally to the US (and Austarlia) on a case-by-case basis without getting into an agreement or process that is as complex and as distant as the QUAD is.   

Let’s move on to AUKUS. As mentioned, this is both a military and industrial alliance that revolves around Australia acquiring nuclear submarines. I have argued in another extended blog post that Canada should not buy nuclear subs. Among other reasons, they are simply too expensive. Canada will be much better served by purchasing a capable conventional submarine force that allows it to defend its own territorial waters and participate in expeditionary missions as needed.

As SSNs are the central raison d’etre of AUKUS, why would Canada seek to join the agreement? The better question is why would the partners of AUKUS want Canada to join? If Canada is not going to purchase nuclear submarines, what is it that Canada would bring to this agreement?

As with the case with the QUAD the answer is very little. If Canada was seen as an interested candidate for AUKUS we would have been approached when the three countries were discussing the arrangement. We weren’t. In fact, by all accounts, there was never any consideration to bring in Canada. And as I see it, that’s okay. We’re already a part of the Five Eyes agreement and I suspect this would cover most of the other elements of the AUKUS agreement (e.g., cyber security)

To this, I would add we already have our AUKUS with the US. It’s called NORAD and we already have enough difficulties in trying to maintain one major military alliance with the US. AUKUS serves Australia because the Aussies face a genuine threat to their north from China, just as we once faced a threat from Russia back in the 50s through to the 80s.

Despite the scenario I write about in my most recent novel Red Blue Storm, Chinese submarines are not and will not be a threat to Canada. In the event that China and Chinese subs become a threat to our close ally Australia in their part of the world, Canada will be able to best serve its friend by having the best military it can afford with a defence budget that ranges from 1.80 to 2% of GDP because I can assure you that Canadians will not fund a military over 2% of GDP.

And this percentage of GDP number is important because it’s the number we’re going to run up against as Canada funds its new frigates (Type-26), the F-35s, NORAD modernization, the purchase of new conventional subs (not even discussed to date), and the reequipping of the other parts of the Canadian Armed Forces. With these priorities in the hopper, there is no circumstance – and I mean none – where Canada would be able to afford nuclear subs. Further, I would add there will be no money to properly fund our ongoing participation in yet another military alliance, whether this is the QUAD or AUKUS, nuclear subs or not. In the event something goes down in the Pacific, Canada is best served by having the best military it can afford and contributing as best it can in any future conflict.

For example, if shit goes down with China, perhaps the best way Canada can assist Australia is to send 2-4 of its conventional subs Down Under to help the Aussies keep their sea lanes safe. This would free up the Royal Australian Navy to send more of its SSNs further afield. And this contribution doesn’t include any of the surface vessels or air contributions we might make. Canada doesn’t need to be in AUKUS to do any of this.

Let me end this post by returning to the Conservative policy proposal and addressing the point that AUKUS is an “elite” defence pact. There is nothing elite about AUKUS. It is mostly an agreement that permits the UK and the US to transfer protected nuclear technology and know-how to Australia. Yes, the agreement will also see more US and UK troops and ships stationed in Australia and will increase cooperation in a few other areas, but I don’t see this any different than what the US and UK (and Canada) do within the context of NATO. If anything, AUKUS is a massive risk to Australia. The task of building and funding nuclear submarines represents a gargantuan challenge for Australia. The costs of building the 12 vessels it is suggesting it will purchase and build could place a financial and political yoke around that country’s neck that would far outweigh anything China might be able to do in the Pacific. I’m not sure this is elite as much as it is the domestic equivalent to gambling with your kids’ education fund.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish our Commonwealth cousins every success in this endeavor. If all goes to plan, Australia will become a major military power in the Pacific for two generations at which point China’s demographic destiny will have arrived and its ability to cause military problems for Australia and the rest of the region will be dramatically reduced. But it is one hell of a gamble no matter how you look at it.

Here in the Great White North, Canada will have its own challenges. As mentioned above, the various platforms that are coming online in the next fifteen years will require Canadians and their politicians to make some hard choices when it comes to the question of defence funding. And then, to do right by our American allies, we have to properly fund and modernize NORAD (our own version of AUKUS) and step up to the plate and defend our own backyard across the Arctic.   

We don’t have any expectation that Australia will join NORAD to help us defend the Artic. Why should Australia or anyone else expect Canada to enter and defend the northern reaches of Australia and the Indo-Pacific?

All this to say, I’m for properly funding the CAF and I’m not for Canada joining the QUAD or AUKUS. It just doesn’t make sense for Canada.

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