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Members of the Canadian Navy's Fleet Diving Unit (Pacific), Leading Seaman Barry MacLeod (L) helps his colleague Leading Seaman Josh Adams into the water to perform an underwater sonar exercise looking for mines during the multi-lateral RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) military exercise in Kaneohe Bay in Kaneohe, Hawaii, July 14, 2010.

HUGH GENTRY/REUTERS

Canada is moving to boost its military presence in Asia.

Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay spent the weekend in talks with Asian defence ministers in Singapore, toured a potential site there for a "hub" for Canadian military operations, and announced Sunday that 1,400 Canadian sailors, soldiers and air force personnel will take part in Pacific Rim military exercises with allies.

The Harper government's plan comes as Canada aims to expand ties with China and other Asian emerging economies. But it also reflects a desire to match the shift of power to Asia led by China's buildup of military might.

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The United States is also signalling it is shifting its presence away from Europe and Africa and toward Asia – a strategy Beijing has eyed warily. China's territorial claims over islands and waters in the South China Sea have worried neighbours like Vietnam and the Philippines, raising concerns of potential military clashes.

Asia's military spending will this year surpass Europe's for the first time, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

In an interview Monday from Bangkok, where he was meeting Thai military officials, Mr. MacKay said beefing up Canadian military credibility in the Pacific will involve political engagement, more exchanges and more presence.

"We're doing the rounds, signalling Canada's intention to reassert our credentials in the Pacific," Mr. MacKay said.

At the meeting in Singapore – the so-called Shangri-La dialogue, which brings together southeast Asian defence ministers with other Pacific nations like the United States, Australia, and China – U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced that 60 per cent of the U.S. Navy fleet will be stationed in the Pacific by 2020, and only 40 per cent in the Atlantic. The Navy is now roughly evenly split between the two.

Canada's own shift toward the Pacific is not so muscular, and doesn't involve a large permanent presence.

One sign of its desire to show its presence in the Pacific Rim is a Canadian Forces contingent of more than 1,400 being sent to the biannual Rim of The Pacific military exercise. This is occurring even in a time of Defence Department cutbacks: Five ships, a submarine, 15 planes, including fighter jets, surveillance planes and refuellers, as well as helicopters, dive teams, and 150 infantry soldiers will take part in the exercise that runs between June 29 and Aug. 3.

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The military "hub" Canada is looking for in southeast Asia, possibly in Singapore, will be small, a "light footprint," Mr. MacKay said. In Singapore, he looked at a port facility near an airfield, he said.

Mr. MacKay's attendance at the Shangri-La dialogue, an increasingly important meeting of defence chiefs from 28 countries named after the Singapore hotel where it is held, was itself notable. Canadian defence ministers have not always attended since it began in 2002, while it has become a must-attend meeting seen in Asia as a signal of interest in regional security.

"We've been sporadic in attending things like the Shangri-La dialogues," Mr. MacKay said. Now Canada not only has to attend such meetings, but follow through with deeds, he said: "We need to be present."

He noted that Canada has trade interests in Asia, and is trying to expand ties with emerging economies there. And there are deep security interests for the world, as so much commerce, 1,000 ships a day, pass through the Straits of Malacca, which links the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, and is still plagued by piracy.

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