WASHINGTON — When the Trudeau government took office in 2015, one of the first appointments was tapping Harjit Sajjan, a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan, as Canada’s minister of national defense. Sajjan is now one of the lonest-serving ministers of defense in Canadian history.

After an appearance at the Halifax International Security Forum, Sajjan talked with Defense News about the country’s long-awaited fighter jet procurement, as well as the nation’s future on the world stage. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Regarding the fighter competition, the plan is to either downselect to two jets in 2021, or make a final decision in 2022. Where does that decision stand? How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted the timing and size of the program?

I’m very happy with the progress of the selection for our next fighter. And it’s gone to a very good stage where we actually have three companies. I don’t know exactly — because the team there that does the analysis is independent — which direction they’ll go, of downselecting or how that’s going to happen. So we’ll see how the progress moves ahead.

I can turn to your direct question regarding COVID-19. We initially, obviously, just like anybody, had some minor delays because we had to shift a lot of the resources to the pandemic fight. But we were able to shift our people back into dealing with our procurement very quickly because, as you know, defense is an essential service, and making sure that those jobs continue was very important to us. So the delays were actually very minor. And all the updates that I’ve reviewed so far [shows] that things are actually progressing extremely well.

So you don’t see any delays for that program likely coming as a result of COVID-19 or anything else?

Right now I’m confident that we’ll be able to make up any time because the shift that we made. [We have some] very good people [who] are running these very large projects, so we needed to shift some of that talent to the COVID-19 fight initially, for good reason. But in a few months, we were able to shift those people back to this program.

Canada’s defense budget is set to significantly increase in the coming years based on the 2017 defense policy agreement. You’ve recently said this will still happen, but some experts said that given the economic impact of the last year and given post-pandemic priorities, the defense budget might end up either changing or taking a cut. How confident are you that the targets that have been set are going to be hit, budget wise?

First of all, the security challenges that we face around the world don’t change. And that’s an important point for everybody to take note of, and it’s something that we took note when we conducted our defense policy review. This is one of the reasons why, when we put this defense policy together, we wanted to have a thorough cost analysis done early on based on the capabilities that we felt that we needed, not only for the defense of Canada but to be good partners as part of this financial command at North American Aerospace Defense Command or the Five Eyes [intelligence-sharing alliance] and the work that we do at NATO.

So we made a decision to fund the defense policy for the duration, which is 20 years. So there was a government-level decision to do this, to carve it out of the fiscal framework, and that should give assurance to people how seriously we took this from the beginning. We looked at any type of financial challenges that a nation might go through, but we also knew that we needed to maintain the defense funding because, as you know, in the past, defense policies have been put out, but the money has not been included, and they had to be agreed upon every single year.

Members of both the North American Aerospace Defense Command and Northern Command, and international dignitaries from Mexico and Canada pay respects during the playing of the national anthem at the NORAD and USNORTHCOM change of command ceremony held on Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., May 24, 2018.

Based on that experience, I can understand some of the concerns that some of these experts actually have, but this is something that we looked at right from the beginning, and the reason why we made a government-level decision to fund the defense policy for the 20 years. So it can’t be just a very quick decision to change the defense budget.

But more importantly, one of the things — probably one of the most important things that we need to take a look at, especially as we deal with COVID-19 — is the economic downturn, [is that] the defense industry adds a significant amount of well-paying jobs. So it’s very important to keep these investments moving because this is about maintaining well-paying jobs across the country and supply chain that we have, connected with our allies, especially with the U.S.

You mentioned global challenges. Something that recently emerged is this idea of the “Quad” between India, Japan, the United States and Australia. Do you see Canada having a role in that, and would you want to join?

I can see what that initiative — what it was trying to achieve. But let’s keep in mind: We already had some good mechanisms where we were working with — so for example, with the United Nations Security Council resolutions on sanctions monitoring in North Korea, that was where nations came together from all the nations that participated in the Korean conflict, Korean War early on, where we decided to up our support for [monitoring.] We created Operation NEON in Canada to provide the direct support. In fact, one of our frigates just completed their work with monitoring, and we have a surveillance aircraft still in the region conducting that work.

So the work that the Quad does — I think it’s extremely important. I think we need to have a much wider conversation of not just looking at the Quad, but we need to look at how allies are going to come together to look at how do we support places like the Asia-Pacific region and our Association of Southeast Asian Nations partners in the Indo-Pacific region. So I think it’s a good effort, but I think we need to look at even more thorough analysis and look at what are the things that nations can contribute.

There’s also talk about whether to expand Five Eyes, perhaps by formally including Japan. Is the idea of a formal Five Eyes expansion something you support?

First of all, Five Eyes is probably one of the most trusted agreements that we have. It’s not just: “You sign an agreement, and you’re part of a trusted group.” There are some very strict measures that every nation needs to take in terms of the security architecture that’s needed inside your country, how we communicate — that provides a framework. That framework also includes a set of laws about governance, as well.

But it does not preclude us from working with other partners, and [partners] having greater cooperation with the Five Eyes. And if ever down the road there’s an opportunity, I think that’s something that’s to be kept on the table. But I think Five Eyes allows us to be able to work with likeminded partners, like Japan, and we’re already doing some great work as it is. We’ll see where the discussion goes.

It seems like you’re saying you’re happy to work with other nations, and already do that, but that Five Eyes requires such a strict legal measure that a formal expansion might not make sense.

What I’m going to say here is that there’s a lot of good work already being done. When you have an expansion, that alone would require a significant amount of effort toward that. But I think right now we need to take a look at how do we use our current mechanisms to create the effects we need. Because there is a concern right now, and we need to support our ASEAN partners in the Pacific. And so it’s better to look at mechanisms that we have in place and work toward a larger relationship.

You’ve made pointed comments about China and the challenge from Beijing. Where’s the greatest challenge from China for Canada? The Arctic? The Pacific? Is it economic?

It’s not just one thing, or pick one over another. I would say overall, the unpredictable nature that China has created, that when you go outside the international rules-based order — that was set up for good reason after the Second World War, of creating predictability — it’s the unpredictability that China has created that’s giving us significant concerns.

So everything from freedom of navigation to how finances are used in countries to bring in influence. About the most important, the biggest one for us, is when they have a disagreement [they will] arbitrarily detain citizens. So we have two citizens who are detained. Australia just, I believe, had an incident very similar to ours. These are some of the things that cause nations around the world to take a [concerned] look. So I wouldn’t say it’s just one.

The Arctic, I’ll be honest with you, it will always be a concern for Canada because our sovereignty is extremely important to us. We want to work within partnerships under international laws. We want to do this, but a pattern that’s created in other areas has caused concern for us in Canada.

There’s a debate among foreign policy experts over whether Canada has been too passive. Does Canada need to take a more robust foreign and national security policy stance, or are you comfortable with where it is now?

I would say our stance has been misunderstood, then. If you look at the last five years alone, when we formed the government and I became defense minister, we didn’t have a consistent engagement in the Pacific. Now we do. We’re officially part of Operation NEON, conducting sanctions monitoring; we obviously, because of COVID-19, weren’t able to do this, but we’ve had ships in the Pacific conducting visits, doing exercises as well, or being part of Exercise RIMPAC. And also increasing our whole-of-government approach. We put a battlegroup into Latvia that we lead, [forces] in Ukraine, we actually increased our role there, increased our footprint with the coalition to fight ISIS [the Islamic State group]. And the list goes on. We’ve actually commanded the NATO training mission in Iraq for the last two years.

So when you look at what we do, it is quite significant. But I think in terms of — you can look at it as passive or active. We have to take a look at what does each nation bring to the table. And I remember having a conversation with [U.S. Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis about this. It’s about utilizing the skill set of your closest allies and how you work together in creating effects for our diplomats. And that’s exactly what Canada has been doing: being a credible partner to convene conversations to be able to move toward peaceful resolutions to disagreements.

I wouldn’t say that we’ve actually had to step back in any way. In fact, if you look at the record of what we’ve actually done, not only we’ve talked about increasing our spending, we’ve actually increased our capabilities and contributions at the same time.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

More In The Americas