Canada has a chance to be a major voice at NATO summit. Will allies listen? – National

Analysts say Canada’s involvement in key discussions as NATO leaders gather in Washington, DC, for their annual summit starting Tuesday could be complicated by how allies view Canada’s commitment to defence spending.

The defense alliance is celebrating its 75th anniversary by looking ahead to an uncertain future and an expanding global threat environment, with both the Arctic and Indo-Pacific oceans top priorities, along with the ongoing war in Ukraine. Security in the Far North is a particular concern for Canada, which also has heavy military investments in Eastern Europe and the North Pacific.

But pressure to meet NATO’s minimum 2 percent of GDP defence spending threshold – and present a concrete plan to achieve it – could come to a head at the summit, pushing Canada into the background of the talks.

“It’s not just about the two percent,” said Richard Shimooka, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute who studies defense policy. “A lot of the spending (that Canada is currently doing) is going to be deferred until the 2030s, and it’s going to take a long time to materialize. … And I feel like a lot of NATO members just don’t have time for that.”

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Click to play video: 'NATO faces uncertain future as 75th anniversary celebrated'

NATO’s future uncertain as it marks 75th anniversary

Canada’s updated defence policy predicts that spending will increase from 1.37 percent of GDP today to 1.76 percent in 2030.

Defence Minister Bill Blair has repeatedly said that Canada will achieve the 2 per cent target through additional unallocated spending, which is not specified in the policy update. However, he has not yet indicated when that might happen.

Canada is the only NATO ally that is not meeting the alliance’s target and has not yet presented a detailed roadmap to reach the two percent target. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this was expected at this week’s summit.

“I have no intention of Canada becoming a profiteer,” Blair told the FP Security Forum in Washington on Monday, the eve of the summit.

“I hope that over the course of the next few days I can share that credible, verifiable plan with our allies to give them assurance that Canada understands its responsibility and that we will meet our responsibility.”

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The lack of a plan has drawn bipartisan condemnation in Washington, with 23 U.S. senators calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to come up with a plan to increase spending.

Sources have told Global News the Biden administration is losing patience with Canada and wants to see a plan that includes submarines and missile defense that can achieve the goal.

Blair has said the government is looking at buying a new submarine fleet and is trying to work with European allies on the dossier, but cannot commit to additional spending until a decision is made on what to buy. He has not given a timeline for that decision.

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On Monday, Blair’s office released a list of quotes from NATO and US leaders praising Canada’s defence policy update and commitments to increase spending.

Click to play video: 'Canada has 'work to do' beyond updating defence policy to meet military needs: Bill Blair'

Canada has ‘work to do’ beyond updating defence policy to meet military needs: Bill Blair

But frustration remains over much of the language in the document, which repeatedly promises to “explore” things like new submarines, missile defense and other technologies, and even career support for military personnel.

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“Actors are listened to when they have a clear and compelling message, and clear and compelling messages typically come from well-thought-out strategies and policies,” said Ann Fitz-Gerald, director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“Many would argue that this ‘exploration’ should already be done.”

Focus on more than just Arctic safety

Canada has described strengthening Arctic security as the “most urgent and important task” facing the Canadian Armed Forces amid a changing geopolitical and physical landscape due to climate change.

Melting polar ice caps are making the far north more accessible to countries like Russia and China, which have grown closer since Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago.

To meet these challenges, the government plans to purchase new early warning aircraft, tactical helicopters, long-range threat deterrent missiles, and expanded sonar and satellite capabilities.

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Canada also pointed to its commitment of nearly $40 billion over 20 years to modernize its NORAD capabilities, including radar systems that can detect approaching threats.

Shimooka points out that it will take years to fully develop the technology and other skills and train military personnel.

Click to play video: 'Navy Commander Warns Royal Canadian Navy Faces 20% Personnel Shortage'

Navy Commander Warns Royal Canadian Navy Faces 20% Personnel Shortage

Analysts suggest that Canada could effectively trade a commitment to Arctic security leadership for resources from NATO allies in other areas. That could increase the risk that Canada will be seen as a dependent partner that does not pull its weight behind the alliance’s priorities.

“The Canadian government has heard from NATO, from the leadership of NATO, from the Secretary General of NATO, from all the individual countries involved on multiple occasions… you have to stop being a parasite on the periphery of NATO,” retired General Rick Hillier, Canada’s former chief of defence staff, told Global News.

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Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new defense pact with North Korea last month, raising alarm bells around the world and further closing the divide between Europe and the Indo-Pacific region.

Canada has played a leading role in enforcing United Nations sanctions against North Korea through the air and sea surveillance mission Operation Neon. It has also sought to strengthen its economic and military position in the Indo-Pacific, alongside the US, which Russia and China have sought to counter.

The NATO summit will include a meeting with European and Indo-Pacific partners, including South Korea and Japan, to deepen military and cybersecurity cooperation. Canada should attend, some analysts say.

“If we were not to engage in that conversation, it would be really detrimental to Canada’s economic security and prosperity,” said Vina Nadjibulla, vice-president of research and strategy at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

“We run the risk of being left out of these discussions, so it is important that we really make our voices heard now and increase our resources.”

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Although outgoing Chief of Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre has said Canada’s military recruitment and budget challenges are improving, the country does not yet have the capacity to send additional frigates to the region, as promised in the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

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Swedish troops will also be deployed to bolster the Canadian-led battle group in Latvia. The group is one of eight multinational forces tasked with deterring and addressing the Russian threat. By 2026, the brigade will be larger.

If Canada appears unable to respond quickly to the need, analysts risk further frustration among NATO allies.

His place in the alliance itself could also be at risk if Republicans take full control of Congress and Donald Trump — who has said he will punish allies who don’t pay their fair share of defense in the event of an attack — returns to the White House.

Trudeau will also use his time in Washington for other meetings around the city to bolster Team Canada’s efforts ahead of the U.S. election to ensure the government is prepared for any outcome. He will meet with Republican and Democratic politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Shimooka says safety will also be discussed in those conversations.

“There is a risk that US members of Congress will continue to look at Canada’s commitments and say, ‘This is unacceptable,’” he said.

— with files from Global’s Mercedes Stephenson and the Canadian press

Sean Boynton

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