During her recent visit to the United States, Chrystia Freeland warned of an increasingly perilous world populated by “muscular dictatorships” entering into confrontation against Western democracies. She further observed that the last three decades of globalization have fostered an interconnected global economy that make democracies economically vulnerable to autocracies, as multiple nodes in the supply chains that are critical to the West’s economic growth and technological advancement, such as that of critical minerals, lie within the territories of autocratic regimes. In order to reduce democracies’ vulnerability, the Minister proposed what has since then been referred to as the “Freeland Doctrine,” which dictates that “democracies must make a conscious effort to build our supply chains through each other’s economies.” She further elaborates that international trade should no longer be based solely on market incentives but on “value-based rules,” where the world’s democracies are banded into an exclusive trading bloc by their shared values to “[stand] up for each other in the face of economic bullying from the world’s dictators.” 

The Freeland Doctrine has since been levied with multiple criticisms, such as its disregard for comparative advantage. Others point out that picking trading partners based on their domestic values is susceptible to volatilities caused by sudden alterations in those values due to changes in government. There is, however, a larger concern that the Freeland Doctrine could result in a more immediate setback to one of Canada’s most important ongoing trade initiatives embedded in its Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is the government’s attempt at accelerating Canada’s trade diversification while fostering a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”, presumably aims to counter China’s regional influence. It strives for “expanded and deepened” partnerships with Indo-Pacific countries, which necessarily entails the negotiation of bilateral and regional trade agreements. Since Freeland declared that “trade deals…define who our friends are,” it should be asked if regional countries can be Canada’s friends under the Freeland Doctrine, or, more importantly, if they wish to be friends with Canada.

India, which is arguably the most important country for Canada in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, fails to pass the values test after having been recently labeled by the widely-cited V-Dem Institute as an “electoral autocracy,” which largely resulted from Modi’s civil society suppression through measures including harassing critics and assaulting protestors. Other regional states such as Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand are clearly non-democracies that engage in political candidate restrictions and the banning of political activists. Therefore, applying the friend-shoring framework in the Indo-Pacific means that Canada’s potential free trade partners in the region will have to be significantly curtailed. 

While Canada is entitled to exclude certain states from the friend-shoring framework, it is unclear if democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific, particularly those in the ASEAN, are willing to join it. As China is currently the largest trading partner of ASEAN and constitutes almost 20% of its trade, ASEAN members are highly unlikely to endorse the Freeland Doctrine by putting their significant trading relationship with China in jeopardy. Furthermore, members of the organization have long resisted aligning with either China or the United States in their ongoing geopolitical competition, preferring instead a foreign policy of hedging. Since China seeks to absorb Southeast Asian countries into its sphere of influence through its economic robustness, while the U.S. attempts to incorporate them into its coalition to contain China by offering various forms of security guarantees, the two superpowers are competing for regional influence and neither one has a dominating presence over the other. As a result, ASEAN has been able to maintain a relatively independent foreign policy from  China and the U.S by hedging for a middle ground between them. Asking ASEAN states to join a friend-shoring framework  would require them to become reliant on the U.S. and its allies in both economic and security terms therefore constraining their foreign policy autonomy and risking Chinese hostility.  

The Freeland Doctrine is not only economically dubious, but it is also ill-suited for Canada’s current Indo-Pacific Strategy. Regional states are likely to resist its framework, meaning potential setbacks for Canada’s attempts to establish trade agreements. If Canada wishes to actualize its Indo-Pacific Strategy, then flexibility, not fixed values, is needed in its trade negotiations with the region. Canadian foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific should thus take a page from the heydays of its middle powerism, during which seeking consensus and building common ground among ideologically different parties, rather than adhering to strict values guiding its actions abroad.

Bingjun Tang is a MA student studying international affairs with a specialization in Data Science at Carleton University. He is interested in better understanding the concept of “Global China,” as well as its implications for global governance and the world order. 

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