NATO summit expected to put Canada under pressure on multiple fronts

It may be a world away from NATO, but the Chinese telecom titan Huawei — and the United States' desire to keep it out of the security grid of western democracies — will be a major topic of conversation among allied leaders this week.  

Senior Trump administration officials telegraphed last week that it "is not in any of the allies' interests" to allow the company into their 5G wireless networks.

That message was directed at Britain and Canada.

And it likely will not be lost on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who leaves Monday for the Dec. 3-4 NATO summit in London. His government has yet to decide whether to accept Huawei's participation in the yet-to-be-established network.

The NATO summit likely will see Canada tested on multiple fronts — among them a renewed call by the White House for Ottawa to meet alliance's benchmark for defence spending of two per cent of the gross domestic product.

A rapid response plan

There is also the "Four 30s" plan, a U.S-led initiative that aims to bolster NATO's ability to reinforce Europe during a crisis with the deployment of 30 battalions of soldiers, 30 squadrons of aircraft and 30 warships within 30 days.

The plan is due to roll out next year and would require Canada to put more money into keeping existing forces at a higher state of readiness.

Some countries, notably France, are pushing back at the American agenda, telling Washington that the discussion among NATO leaders has to be about more than money.

Canada already has committed to increasing its defence spending but it will not meet NATO's target of two per cent of the country's gross domestic product. One defence expert said the "Four 30s" plan could back the Liberal government further into a corner.

"Will the government, if it makes promises in London, add more money to operations and maintenance? My suspicion is no, they won't," said Canada's former top NATO military adviser, retired vice-admiral Bob Davidson.

"And they're not going to grow the defence budget any more than they already have, particularly in a minority Parliament."

A senior Canadian government official, speaking on background ahead of the summit, said Canada "will not be on the defensive" and intends to underline that it is not "a passive member of the alliance."

Canada's budget bind

Ever since relations with Russia were sent into the deep freeze by Moscow's annexation of Crimea, Washington has been pushing allies to contribute more to defence budgets and to increase their ability to respond to a crisis.

The "Four 30s" plan means allies will be expected early next year to identify the forces they intend to keep at a higher state of readiness. The secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, has said the plan is about boosting the preparedness of existing units, not setting up or deploying new forces.

Davidson said that's going to cost money — and it will be instructive to listen to what the Liberal government says at the London summit and compare it to what it sets aside in the next budget to fund training, operations and maintenance.

"It would be possible for us to to make a verbal commitment at the summit that would say that we're going to do our part without necessarily having to invest significantly more money, or do a whole lot more than we already are, which is what I think the government will do," he said.

The Canadian navy and air force both maintain high-readiness ships and fighter aircraft for rapid deployment. The Canadian army keeps one battle group (which is slightly bigger than a battalion) trained and ready to deploy in case of an emergency.

The nuclear wild card

But Canadian defence planners have a problem: How can they reinforce Europe in an emergency when, in all likelihood, the sea lanes would be either closed or severely restricted because of Russian submarines?

Ivo Daalder, the former U.S. permanent representative to NATO, said the plan sends an important message of deterrence. The question, he said, is not whether the U.S. or Canada can mobilize the required forces.

"The question is whether they can meet them in 30 days," he said.

The other, more apocalyptic consideration is whether those forces could be assembled before a conventional conflict with Russia goes nuclear.

"I am reminded that in back in the days of the Warsaw Pact, when they used to war-game Russian invasions of Europe, those war games always ended in nuclear war within a fairly short period — two to three weeks, maybe," Daalder said.

Having said that, Daalder said the Russia of today is not the Soviet Union of yesterday and its conventional forces, while still formidable, could be matched by NATO's existing forces.

"There should be no reason why Europe, with the assistance of the United States and Canada, can't defend European territory against a Russian conventional attack," said Daadler, who now serves as president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The cornerstone of Cold War deterrence was the threat of nuclear war. Despite the passage of three decades, Daadler said the deterrent still works.

Davidson said both political and defence planners are no doubt asking themselves whether there's a likely threat of Russian tanks rolling west across the border.

"Russia likes to play in their near horizon," he said. "They're working to maintain control and security of their border states. So, they're going to exercise influence there."

The annexation of Ukraine is one thing, he said, but to "take on Poland ... why on earth would would [Russian President Vladimir] Putin want to do that today with a global economies the way they are? They need their oil markets."

The Trump administration doesn't necessarily see it that way. Recently-appointed U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said America expects its allies, including Canada, to live up to their spending commitments, to pull their weight in the world and to fall in line on security threats such as Huawei.