Canadian Press, WASHINGTON: Canadians don't need to break the bank to help dispel the perception among some Americans that they're freeloading when it comes to defence, says a top U.S. military analyst.

Informal talks have started on possibly expanding the North American Aerospace Defence Agreement to include land and sea defences. Dwight Mason, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Canada should consider pledging to join forces with the United States in coastal defence.

“Canadians have an opportunity here to change the way the United States thinks about things,” Mason said in an interview. “Canada can do lots of things without spending money that would change the views of a lot of people down here.”

While deciding whether to sign on to the costly U.S. missile-defence program is the biggest issue on the table, participating in joint coastal defences under Norad would also be a major sign of Canada's commitment to protecting North America, he said.

“It's not free,” Mason said. “But it doesn't cost much more, if you're devoting more resources to coastal defence and less elsewhere.”

A sweeping review of Canada's foreign policy is due soon. “Canada will obviously make its own decision on missile defence,” he said. “And if we (Americans) just say 'Spend more', we aren't really helping. It's not very helpful to express vague concerns.”

Yet the decline in Canada's military capabilities is becoming more apparent to U.S. officials, Mason said. Canada is running budget surpluses and investing much more heavily in health care and other domestic programs than its military.

“It's just more visible now. The mist has dispersed a bit.”

While there may not be any unrealistic expectations that Canada would spend lavishly on a general upgrading of all its military capabilities, U.S. officials are probably looking for faster movement on replacing the air force's CF-18 jet fighters and the navy's frigates that are critical to safeguarding North America from terrorists, he said.

The American view of Canada's defence policy was brought into sharp focus recently amid reports that President George W. Bush, when he visited Canada in December, linked co-operation with his missile-defence plan to future protection under the U.S. defence umbrella.

“What you generally hear is Canada is freeloading,” said Mason. “I think Bush has just put it another way.”

The fact that Canada is taking so long to make a decision on whether to participate in the U.S. project to defend North America against missile attacks from rogue countries or terrorists isn't helping, he said.

“The longer this drags on, the worse it gets. They've already said half-yes. The time to do this would have been right away. It just makes Canada appear indecisive and vulnerable. And it's unnecessary.”

Paul Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, said last week that it's important to have military co-operation through Norad, which will survive no matter what Canada decides on the U.S. missile-defence plan.