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Just kidding, Canada wants in on AUKUS after all

Composite of flag of Canada separate from AUKUS member national flags
Annie Gugliotta

Just over two years ago, Canada’s Liberal government dismissed the country’s absence from AUKUS – the Indo-Pacific security alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. “This is a deal for submarines,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “which Canada is not currently or anytime soon in the market for.” He assured voters it would have no impact on Canada’s Five Eyes partnership (the intelligence pact between Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US, and Canada), and that was that.

Canada wasn’t being snubbed or sidelined for being a defense-spending laggard … or so we were told. Canada simply didn’t want or need nuclear submarines. Never mind that it was reported at the time that AUKUS also included military technology and information sharing as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy.

On second thought …

Fast-forward to spring 2023. Now, Canada wants in and is saying so publicly, citing – you guessed it – a desire to share information and military technology. Defense Minister Anita Anand hasn’t said whether the country has formally sought AUKUS membership, but if you read between the lines, it’s pretty clear that it wants in. "Canada is highly interested in furthering cooperation on AI, quantum computing, and other advanced technologies … with our closest allies,” Anand said this week.

(Not for nothing, New Zealand is striking a similar pose, recently suggesting it is also open to joining the pact for the non-nuclear bits.)

The truth is, two years ago there was plenty of handwringing about the state and future of defense policy when Canada was shunned from AUKUS. Ottawa was nervous that it was being shut out of key Indo-Pacific strategizing, a Five-Eyes world headed toward two fewer peepers.

“You can imagine, from the Canadian perspective, the idea that we’re slowly moving into a Three-Eyes world, certainly in the Pacific, and that we are there with New Zealand on the outside, is a bit of a shock,” says Canadian defense policy expert Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University. Canada, he notes, does not wish for AUKUS to become a “de facto new alliance structure for the Five-Eyes.”

So what’s changed?

Canada may want to push harder to join AUKUS now that it has a better sense of what’s on offer. After all, Ottawa wasn’t included in the discussions leading up to the formation of AUKUS. “We weren’t privy to the details of what it might look like and what it might involve,” says Lagassé.

Graeme Thompson, a senior analyst with Eurasia Group's Global Macro-Geopolitics practice, agrees that the evolution of the alliance has made it more appealing. Initially, “the AUKUS agreement focused largely on Pillar I related to nuclear submarines, which are of limited interest to Canada,” he says. But when it comes to Pillar II and the development and sharing of advanced technology for both civil and military purposes, “Canada likely doesn’t want to miss out on the potential industrial benefits, especially considering its close integration with the US on the critical minerals supply chains needed to produce those technologies,” he says.

Domestic politics may also be at play here. As it happens, the security partnership – or at least the parts Canada wants in on – “pings exactly where some of this government’s spending priorities are,” says Lagassé. A look through government budgets and announcements shows that those areas include artificial intelligence, critical minerals, and quantum technologies, which are bound up in the AUKUS alliance.

Moreover, geopolitics has changed in the last two years. “Relations between the US and China have also deteriorated since AUKUS launched,” Thompson says. “Ottawa’s apparent change of heart should be understood in that much more competitive and uncertain geopolitical context.”

In short, Canada doesn’t want to be left behind, whether it’s on Indo-Pacific military strategy, information sharing, or technological development. And it definitely wants in on the lucrative contracts and trade that come with developing and selling military equipment that accounts for much of the economic activity in a handful of Canadian regions. These areas – Quebec, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Ontario – are home to a handful of seats in Parliament that the Liberal government needs to hold on to.

What’s in it for the US – and the others?

You might expect the US to welcome Canada to the party – even if it arrives late and without much to share. But maybe not. The US and Canada engage in significant military and intelligence cooperation as members of NATO and the Five Eyes, and Eurasia Group Senior Analyst Ali Wyne says “Washington would welcome opportunities to deepen [that], especially amid deteriorating relations between Ottawa and Beijing.” But, he adds, “there is no public indication that the United States is actively pushing for Canada’s inclusion in AUKUS.”

That may not come as a surprise to Trudeau. Owing to decades of bipartisan neglect, Thompson says that “Canadian forces are relatively underfunded and underequipped, so Ottawa lacks the overall capacity and capabilities that would make it a more attractive military partner for the US in the Indo-Pacific.” Australia, on the other hand, spends more on defense than Canada “despite only having roughly two-thirds of the population,” he adds.

It’s also not just up to the US. If anyone wants Canada on board, Lagassé thinks the US would probably be the most open to it, whereas Australia and the UK may be more reticent “because it would mean sharing potential economic benefits with a fourth partner.” The two smaller AUKUS partners might ask why Canada should reap the economic benefits if it’s “not spending on the subs” or contributing expensive, difficult-to-produce parts. “It’s not a charity,” Lagassé adds.

Choosing sides for Cold War 2.0

Backdropping AUKUS is an increasingly polarized global order in which the West and China are cast as adversaries, recalling a Cold War posture in which Washington headed the First World, pulling its allies into its orbit, while the Soviet Union led the Second World, collecting its own allied states.

Canada’s absence from AUKUS, says Wyne, “limits the extent to which it can align with key allies and partners in competing with China and shaping the Indo-Pacific’s security architecture.”

Canada tends to hedge its bets, not wanting to fully alienate China, from whom it imported $100 billion in goods and exported $27.9 billion worth in 2022. But there’s little doubt where most of its chips lie: with the United States.


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