Former Australian prime minister says Canada's unwillingness to adopt nuclear subs caused snub
Canada was left out of the trilateral defence and security pact known as AUKUS — and a new report by a respected American think tank says Ottawa must overcome its apparent indifference to the deal or risk being left behind by its allies.
The analysis report, published online Tuesday by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, was co-authored by Vincent Rigby, a former national security and intelligence adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The report pulled no punches.
"The glacial pace at which Canada appears to be adapting to the realities of modern great power competition has left it far behind the curve, with consequences for both Ottawa's reputation among its allies and its ability to protect Canadian territory, sovereignty, and contribute to global peace and stability," said the report, which probed the reasons why Canada was left out of AUKUS.
"The simple answer is that Ottawa was apparently not invited."
Several defence and diplomatic sources have said Canada was not invited to take part before the pact was formally announced by the United States, Britain and Australia in September 2021 .
CBC News is not naming the confidential sources of information because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
Rigby said he saw no indication Canada was about to be invited to join the arrangement that became AUKUS just a few months before it was announced.
"There was no indication when I was national security and intelligence adviser" that a deal was in the works, said Rigby, whose tenure as Trudeau's national security and intelligence adviser ended in June 2021. (He fully retired from the public service in September 2021.)
Rigby said that while he worked with Trudeau, he had "regular discussions" with Canada's allies in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership — Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand — and the idea of AUKUS membership never came up.
"I had regular discussions with my counterparts in the United States, in the United Kingdom, in Australia. We talked about the threat environment," he said. "We talked about how we, as a Five Eyes partnership, needed to do more in terms of responding to external threats, including from China, including in the Indo-Pacific region.
Canada not seen as a 'significant player'
"But in terms of actually coming together and focusing on either submarine capability or broader defence, technological cooperation, that did not arise on my watch."
He said that if Canada wasn't invited to take part in AUKUS in the weeks following his departure from government, it "speaks volumes about the way Canada is perceived by its allies at the present time … that we're not necessarily seen as a significant player on the international stage and in particular in the Indo-Pacific region."
Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull told CBC News that it's his understanding Canada was not invited because of its long-standing aversion to acquiring nuclear subs.
"The initiative for AUKUS came about because the then-Australian government, led by Mr. [Scott] Morrison, wanted to break the contract with France and wanted to proceed with naval nuclear propulsion," said Turnbull, referring to his country's previous plan to buy conventional submarines from France. That plan was cancelled in favour of the AUKUS arrangement.
"They began with discussions with the British and … then they then found their way to Washington," Turnbull added.
The AUKUS pact has two main components or "pillars": the acquisition by Australia of American and British nuclear submarine technology, and transfers of military technology and intelligence.
Turnbull said that since Canada doesn't operate or manufacture nuclear submarines, or aspire to build a nuclear fleet, it wasn't part of the dialogue.
"I can understand why Canadians are really puzzled why they were not brought into the loop," he said, pointing out that Canada has a lot of experience with nuclear energy technology. "Canada does have a considerable and extensive nuclear experience in terms of operating nuclear civilian nuclear power stations. Australia does not."
'It caught us unaware'
Turnbull's assessment agrees with former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson's perception of events.
"It caught us unaware, but the [political] balm was, well, we've got a preferred relationship with the United States, we don't really need it," said Robertson, now vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, an Ottawa-based think-tank that occasionally has hosted events sponsored by defence contractors.
The report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies said Canada would have been turned off by the cost of acquiring and maintaining a nuclear sub fleet through AUKUS.
"The apparent indifference of Canada toward AUKUS seems to stem from a combination of sticker-shock and an inadequate understanding of the benefits to be derived from the agreement," said the report, which noted the submarine portion of the deal could cost Australia between $268 billion and $368 billion Australian ($179 billion and $245 billion US) over a 30-year period.
At an event on Monday at the National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, Defence Minister Anita Anand was asked whether Canada was notified of or invited to join AUKUS. She avoided answering the question.
WATCH: Defence Minister Anita Anand on Canada and AUKUS
Defence minister is asked whether Canada has requested to join AUKUS
Responding to questions about whether Canada has formally asked to be a part of AUKUS, Minister of National Defence Anita Anand says Canada is ‘highly interested in continuing to work with our allies, including Australia, the United States and the U.K.’
"As I mentioned, we are highly interested in continuing to work with our allies, including Australia, United States and the U.K., in terms of our capabilities in advanced technologies, in innovation in AI and quantum technologies," Anand said.
Canada has signaled it is interested in furthering its cooperation with allies in artificial intelligence and other high technology not related to the nuclear program.
Robertson said he doubts Canada's allies are eager to see it at the table for the tech transfer and intelligence-sharing portion of the agreement.
"I don't think the Australians want to see us in," he said, adding that the Americans might admit Canada "if we push them hard enough." He said that U.S. support likely would be conditional on Canada showing more initiative in meeting NORAD's modernization goals in the Arctic.
Turnbull, however, argued that it's in the best interests of all the allies to let Canada, and perhaps New Zealand, join the non-nuclear aspects of the arrangement.
"Is Canada better off not participating in the partnership with the U.K., Australia and the United States to build nuclear powered submarines? That is a question only Canadians can answer," Turnbull said.
The former prime minister pointed out that the defence relationship between the members of the Five Eyes alliance "is so close already. Many people have questioned how it is possible for it to become any closer.
"But if it can be closer, if the collaboration, technological collaboration can become more seamless, that can only be a good thing."
'Canada has much to offer AUKUS'
The Center for Strategic and International Studies report agreed. It said that some of Canada's policy framework and initiatives — particularly those related to the possession and development of critical minerals — make it an important potential partner.
"Canada has much to offer AUKUS, and vice versa," said the report.
"But striking the right balance remains a challenge for both sides. For Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, opening the door to too many partners too soon risks making the agreement overly broad and unwieldy."
For Canada, said the report, the downside of joining AUKUS would be "demands over the longer term for dramatic increases in defence spending which may not be easy for Ottawa and the public writ large to accept."
The consequences of not joining could be even less palatable, the report said.
"Beyond reputational damage, Canada's weak security stance in the face of growing challenges from revanchist and revisionist powers will compromise Canadian national interests, as can be seen with aggressive Russian moves in the Arctic and increasingly hostile Chinese activities in Canada, including electoral interference."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Senior reporter, defence and security
Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.
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