The China panic: is Canada risking war in the Pacific?

In more closely aligning with the U.S. military in the Pacific today, Canada is positioning itself in opposition to the Indigenous Pacific, increasing the risks of war, and courting environmental catastrophe. 

by John Price & Satoko Oka Norimatsu 

Last month, Global News broadcast a news item from Okinawa, Japan, in which Indigenous Okinawans recounted the ongoing struggle to rid the islands of American bases that Canadian forces are also using. “I want Canada not to invade our rights,” one activist told reporter Neetu Garcha. Joining Okinawans in their opposition to a stepped-up Canadian military presence are Indigenous Hawaiians (kanaka maoli) who, with anti-war allies, gathered at Kailua, Hawaii, near the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station to oppose the 2022 RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) war games involving the Canadian Navy. PRC has greeted Canada’s increased naval and air presence off its shores. The CBC reported two run-ins last October, the most recent between China’s PLA J-11 jets and a Canadian CH-148 Cyclone helicopter operating off the HMCS Ottawa in the South China Sea. Similar incidents have occurred between Canadian and Chinese naval vessels in the same area. Off Korea, China’s jets have intercepted Canadian Aurora surveillance planes operating in the area. What has caused these dangerous interactions, and why do Indigenous and peace activists now have Canada in their sights? 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on October 19, 2023. Over the past five years, Canada has significantly increased its military presence in Asia and the Pacific through Operation Neon, Operation Projection (Indo-Pacific), and RIMPAC naval exercises, as written by John Price and Satoko Oka Norimatsu. The photograph in The Hill Times is credited to Andrew Meade. 

Over the past five years, the Canadian government has moved to significantly increase its military presence in Asia and the Pacific via Operation Neon, Operation Projection (Indo-Pacific), and RIMPAC naval exercises. Operation Neon began in 2018 with the dispatch of Canadian naval vessels as well as CP-140 Aurora surveillance aircraft to Okinawa, about 700 kilometers south of Japan. Over the following five years, nine distinct deployments of frigates, the supply ship Asterix, and CP-140 Aurora have taken place. According to Canada’s Department of Defence, the rationale for dispatching these forces was to enforce sanctions against North Korea. CAF is now stationing its forces on both the U.S.-occupied Kadena air base as well as its naval station White Beach on Okinawa, an island chain doubly colonized by Japan and the United States as Asian American scholar Jodi Kim illustrates in her recent book Settler Garrison. Operation Projection (Indo-Pacific) is also a recent initiative to conduct “forward naval presence operations in the region as well as conduct cooperative deployments and participate in international naval exercises with partner nations.”

CBC broadcast a live report from aboard the HMCS Ottawa, a Canadian frigate that was about to join U.S. and Japanese naval vessels to sail through the Taiwan straits, heavily shadowed by maritime forces from China. The narrator suggested that what was taking place on the water was a “microcosm for deteriorating relations between China and both Canada and the United States.” The last RIMPAC war exercises saw Canada dispatch HMCS Montreal from its Halifax port on the Atlantic in addition to HMCS Vancouver and Winnipeg to participate in the U.S.-led Pacific war games. The next RIMPAC exercise is scheduled for summer 2024. Recently, Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy allocated an additional $500 million to augment its military forces in Asia and the Pacific, and another $227 million for CSIS, the RCMP, and other agencies operating in the region. What has prompted Canada’s escalating military incursions in Asia and the Pacific?

The Canadian military says it is increasing its presence to enforce sanctions against North Korea or to reinforce the “the rules-based international order” for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” China, suggests the Canadian government, is an “increasingly disruptive global power.” China is expanding its influence as it gathers strength economically. And this presents new challenges. But to suggest that it alone is responsible for what is occurring is irresponsible and dangerous. The creation of an inflated “China threat” deflects from an interest-based analysis and distorts the history of Asia and the Pacific.

Rules-based international order?

Both the U.S. and Canada often emphasize a “rules-based international order.” In practice, however, this has meant that the U.S. establishes the rules and enforces the order it desires, often bypassing the United Nations whenever it deems necessary.

In the case of North Korea, for instance, the UN has imposed sanctions on the country for its nuclear program. However, the UN has never established a military command to enforce those sanctions. Instead, the U.S. is invoking the old ‘UN Command’ formed during the Korean War, even though in 1975, the General Assembly urged South and North Korea to continue talks so “that the United Nations Command may be dissolved.”

By joining the Americans in reviving structures from the Korean War to confront North Korea, Canada is only increasing the risk of war. The fact that both the U.S. and Canada refuse to address the issue of Israel’s nuclear arsenal is seen by North Korea as a blatant double standard.

Furthermore, the U.S. has declined to ratify the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone (SPNFZ) established by the Treaty of Rarotonga, initiated by Oceania states such as the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. While Australia has ratified the SPNFZ, it consistently violates it by stationing nuclear-capable U.S. B-52 bombers in its Northern Territories and signing the recent AUKUS agreement, which involves operating nuclear-powered submarines in the region. 

Throughout the Pacific, the U.S. and its allies have caused significant environmental damage. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. detonated 67 nuclear bombs between 1946 and 1958, a story recently detailed in an LA Times feature. “More than any other place, the Marshall Islands is a victim of the two greatest threats facing humanity—nuclear weapons and climate change,” says Michael Gerrard, a legal scholar at Columbia University’s law school. “The United States is entirely responsible for the nuclear testing there, and its emissions have contributed more to climate change than those from any other country.”

Indigenous Peoples of Oceania, along with anti-war allies in Asia and the Pacific, are standing up against U.S. settler colonialism, spanning from the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee to the violent U.S. colonization of Hawai’i and the Philippines, and extending to Okinawa and Vietnam.

By aligning more closely with the U.S. military in the Pacific today, Canada is positioning itself in opposition to the Indigenous Pacific, increasing the risks of war, and courting environmental catastrophe.

  • The article was first published by The Hill Times
  • John Price, emeritus professor of history at the University of Victoria, is the author of “Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific” (UBC Press) and the recent report “The Five Eyes and Canada’s China Panic” with the National Security Reference Group, Canadian Association of University Teachers.
  • Satoko Oka Norimatsu is co-author of “Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States” (Rowman and Littlefield), an editor of the Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, and coordinator of the International Network of Museums for Peace. 

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