Canada's Timid Foreign Policy

It has been Canada's position to maintain cautious distance from the territorial and maritime disputes brewing in the South China Sea. For obvious reasons, another foreign mission so soon after Libya and Afghanistan, even in a non-military capacity, is unlikely to draw widespread support from Parliament and Canadians alike.

Instead, this country has maintained its role as an observer in a multinational dispute it regards as serious but not yet requiring intervention. However, given the silence by our politicians (and from all parties), it would seem as though these disputes do not even rate a comprehensive discussion.

But who is to be held accountable for this obvious lack of interest? The media? These disputes have yet to dissolve into a shooting war, and as a result, not an entertaining piece for the evening news. What about the politicians? Members of Parliament are elected representatives of their constituents. If we are to blame our leaders, we must also blame ourselves. So who is really to blame?

The answer lies somewhere in between.

Ignorance is bliss

There's much to be said about burying one's head in the sand. It doesn't work. Pretending a problem doesn't exist won't make it disappear, but that is exactly what Canada's leaders have done with respect to the South China Sea.

Instead of taking the reins of what could prove to be a very important issue of national security, they have relinquished control over our destiny, not because they lack the ability to project their foreign policy but because they choose not to. And they have chosen not to, not out of some grand directive of non-intervention but because they have become complacent. They have become lazy, have chosen to retreat from the international stage. When they do act, it is only when they feel that it is safe to do so. They have relinquished control over foreign policy, our future in the world, to those who would have the will to act in this affair -- China, the primary actor in these disputes; India; and, as it happens so often, Canada's neighbors to the south, the United States.

And we are content with letting this come to past, as long as our belief that bad things can never happen to us continues to endure. Why act when we can continue to live our lie --that we are a nation loved by everyone in the world? Beyond the South China Sea disputes, we have ignored the obvious truth that the world isn't a very safe place. There has never been a period of peace where a war wasn't being fought in some corner of our planet.

We have skated by, lucky to have avoided events like 9/11 happening on our own soil. The US has perpetually been portrayed as a country under attack while Canada remains a safe haven, but the truth would suggest otherwise. We have been the victims of Chinese cyber-attacks and corporate espionage, something our government is keenly aware of, as they were also the targets of these attacks. However, for the majority of Canadians, cyber warfare is irrelevant, inconsequential, because blood has not been spilled, bombs have not been dropped, and bullets have not been fired. More to the point, cyber warfare cannot be felt, at least not physically. And so because we do not see it, because we cannot truly experience it, we ignore it.

We have convinced ourselves that we are safe. Our country spans a continent with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Pacific to the west. To the south, we have a neighbor we will never have to fear; and to the north, we have the Arctic Circle. We are lucky to have been spared the historical baggage of European and Asian countries. We are living in the New World after all, but we lack the experience or maturity of the Old World.

Consequences of not acting

It isn't so much that we should start intervening in every dispute that occurs around the world. We don't have the resources for multiple long-term commitments but we as a nation should be less inclined to having others do our work. If we are to be the stalwart defenders of human rights and international law then we must act whenever our core values are violated. If there are human rights violations in Africa, we must be willing to intervene and help those who cannot help themselves. If the international laws we hold in such high esteem are broken, we must be ready to enforce said laws and confront the guilty party. Laws are respected only if they are enforced, otherwise they are simply guidelines that can be ignored.

When we have the means to affect change, even if it is just a single, solitary instance of change, we would be morally remiss in neglecting our duties. Worse, we would rightfully be branded hypocrites. It is easy to talk about an issue and take a stand, but it is something else to act and defend our values, for which we assume to hold dear.

To abandon our foreign policy to the whims of others, or shape our foreign policy in accordance to the views of others, we risk losing our sovereignty. If we are no longer able to govern at home and abroad without seeking permission from others, we become less of a country. If we are to only react to life's events then who are we as a nation but mere spectators on the international stage? Our words will become meaningless and our actions predictable. Complacency, fear, and laziness must be removed from government and society.

A real concern to all Canadians

Credibility and influence is not gained by doing nothing. It is gained by doing something and doing it right. And right now as the South China Sea disputes plunge deeper into an arms race between China and its neighbors, Canada cannot continue to sit on the sidelines. Monitoring the situation is not enough. We must become proactive. We must take bold steps in bringing these disputes to a peaceful resolution. We must become leaders rather than followers, but only if we find the courage and strength of will to act.

The potential for a shooting war does exist, and we may find ourselves getting dragged in. Blood will be shed. Bombs will be dropped. Bullets will be fired. And should this happen, we'll wonder if we could have done anything to prevent this. Maybe, perhaps, but we'll never know.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law. He serves as President of the VDK Law Office and the VDK Investment Consulting Group.)