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Canada must remain pragmatic with China amid COVID-19

From a realist perspective, Canada’s long-term interests are guaranteed when its foreign policy is centered on multilateralism, which allows the country to capitalize on its soft power as a complementary, but a vital force to protect and promote liberal values and respect for human rights on the international stage. Hence, unilateral approaches such as Magnitsky sanctions are counterproductive, particularly when it comes to dealing with a major global power like China.

This article was originally published on The Hill Times.

By Younes Zangiabadi

TORONTO—After weeks of Canada’s diplomatic restraint from joining other allies like Australia in calling for an international investigation into China’s early handling of the global pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally toughened up on Beijing during one of his latest daily briefings when he said that there are many questions, “particularly, for China,” around the origins and behaviours in early days of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Soon after, Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu, for the first time since the outbreak, said that the Chinese government would be, indeed, open to an “inclusive” review of the coronavirus that is led and run by the World Health Organization. While this is a positive development that must be welcomed, it is still unknown whether the investigation process will or will not meet the expectation of the international community. Regardless of that, Canada made the right decision to join other allies in demanding more transparency from China.

However, there is still some domestic pressure on Trudeau’s government to go beyond the use of diplomacy and take more coercive measures against China. For instance, there have been calls from influential former ministers—on both sides of the aisle—to impose Magnitsky sanctions on Chinese officials whom some, including former Liberal minister of justice, Irwin Cotler, accuse of suppressing key information related to COVID-19 in the early days of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Cotler said that “the Chinese Communist Party has to be held accountable through naming and shaming, in the court of public opinion, in actual courts of law through international tort actions, and through Magntisky sanctions.” In the same vein, Peter MacKay, also a former minister of justice who is currently in the race for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, has called for invoking the Magnitsky Act once the individuals accused of concealing and fabrication of data for COVID-19 are identified in China.

The Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (Magnitsky sanction) allows the Government of Canada to sanction “foreign nationals responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” imposing travel bans and asset freezes in Canada. The act is named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who was jailed, tortured, and killed in a prison in Moscow after revealing state-backed fraud in Russia.

So far, Canada’s Magnitsky sanctions have targeted officials of foreign countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, South Sudan, and Myanmar. Despite extensive efforts by some Conservative Senators to add Chinese officials to the Magnitsky sanction’s list, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not yet shown willingness to support these hardline measures against China. While this hesitation might seem contradictory to Canada’s commitment to promoting international justice and respect for human rights, it is indeed a pragmatic decision aligned with Canada’s long-term national interests.

First and foremost, sanctions are foreign policy instruments that aim to either coerce, constrain, or signal the sanctioned party to change its behaviour and actions that are believed to undermine and violate international norms and values. Canada, as a middle power, does not merely have the political, economic, and financial levers to constrain or coerce China to change its behaviour. Unfortunately, the lack of progress in resolving the ongoing detainment of Michael Kovrig and Micheal Spavor is a clear indication that Canada, despite much effort, is not able to influence China on its own.

Consequently, Ottawa could only resort to Magnitsky sanctions as a way to send a signal to Beijing that it is concerned and discontented with Chinese violations of human rights. This is exactly what Irwin Cotler refers to as “naming and shaming.” But one must conduct a cost-benefit analysis of such an approach toward China when it is almost certain that Canada’s unilateral imposition of Magnitsky sanctions will not be effective in inducing any kind of change in Chinese behaviour, let alone protecting and promoting human rights inside the country. In technical terms, it is also impossible to implement such measures, considering difficulties associated with identifying Chinese officials responsible for human rights violations and the alleged coverup of the pandemic.

It is important to remember that China has historically opposed what it considers as foreign meddling in its internal affairs and its ambassador to Canada has previously made that clear when he warned Ottawa of “very firm countermeasures” if Parliament adopts a Senate motion that called for Magnitsky sanctions on China for its alleged human rights abuses against Muslim Uighurs and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Therefore, these sanctions will undoubtedly further deteriorate the already strained Canada-China relations, creating unnecessary and serious crises for Canada as it struggles to recover and rebuild its economy in the post-pandemic era.

In addition, the global pandemic has exposed serious vulnerabilities in Canada’s supply chain, which makes taking such unilateral measures a huge strategic mistake as it stigmatizes China at a time when much of Canada’s import of personal protective equipment including face masks currently come from that country. Prime Minister Trudeau certainly understands this reality and that is why his government has recently taken concrete steps to diversify Canada’s trade partnerships with other countries across Asia and Europe.

From a realist perspective, Canada’s long-term interests are guaranteed when its foreign policy is centered on multilateralism, which allows the country to capitalize on its soft power as a complementary, but a vital force to protect and promote liberal values and respect for human rights on the international stage. Hence, unilateral approaches such as Magnitsky sanctions are counterproductive, particularly when it comes to dealing with a major global power like China.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor