Recent Posts
HomeAsiaOn China, Canada Needs a Nuanced Approach

On China, Canada Needs a Nuanced Approach

Amid this crisis, we must not forget our strategic foresight. From a broader perspective, the emerging multipolar global order demands a renewed Canadian middle-power doctrine that relies less on the US economy.

By Pouyan Kimiayjan

In February, China’s top leadership acknowledged “shortcomings and deficiencies” in the government’s response to COVID-19. Unregulated wildlife markets, the likely source of the coronavirus, were allowed to operate, and the Chinese government reportedly suppressed independent reporting of the crisis and responded slowly in alerting Wuhan citizens of the virus’ spread. China was unable to contain COVID-19 within the country’s borders, sparking a global pandemic that has paralyzed the world economy. Here in Canada, the unemployment rate has reached 13 percent, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projecting a 6.2 percent drop in Canada’s 2020 GDP growth. Consequently, Canadians are demanding tougher rhetoric on China.

In response to China’s questionable response to COVID-19, the Trump administration has pursued a hawkish policy towards China, partly due to the 2020 election and the ongoing competition with a rising global power. In Canada, in a sympathetic tone with Washington, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has criticized the Trudeau government for “appeasing” the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and has urged a tougher response on China. Among a number of suggestions, Mr. Scheer has called for an immediate end to the federal government’s funding for the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. 

Undoubtedly, Canada needs to join the international community in demanding transparency from China. However, we must employ an even-handed approach that considers Canada’s vital strategic economic and security interests and avoid becoming collateral damage amid the emerging cold war between China and the United States. Let’s not forget that the United States’ request to arrest and extradite Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou prompted the detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. While the arrest was praised by Washington, US officials failed to help Canada secure the release of Canadian citizens, with Kovrig and Spavor still unjustly languishing in Chinese prisons. The recent ruling on Meng Wanzhou’s case has worsened tensions, with China’s state TV lashing out against Canada. In a recent panel discussion hosted by the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques was pessimistic on the prospect of any diplomatic breakthrough with respect to the case of the two Michaels. Saint-Jacques stated that Canada has little leverage to change China’s behavior, with Kovrig and Spavor to be held in China as long as Meng Wanzhou stays in Vancouver. 

Amid this crisis, we must not forget our strategic foresight. From a broader perspective, the emerging multipolar global order demands a renewed Canadian middle-power doctrine that relies less on the US economy. Washington’s decision to halt 3M’s export of N95 masks to Canada raised serious questions about the long-term sustainability of US-Canada relations, particularly given the possibility of another four years of the Trump presidency. While preserving Canada’s traditional relationship with its only neighbor is imperative, overdependence can do more harm than good. 

In this light, Ottawa has an essential interest in preserving its ties with Beijing. We are currently importing critical medical equipment from China and are engaged in a joint effort to produce a vaccine for the treatment of COVID-19. Additionally, China is expected to make a quicker recovery from COVID-19. This is an opportunity for Canada to increase bilateral trade, as the economic ramifications of the coronavirus coupled with low oil prices are hurting our economy. Increasing bilateral trade also strengthens our negotiating position and builds trust, critical for a sustainable long-term relationship. This is why the Trudeau government has so far been careful in its statements on China’s response to the pandemic, recognizing the priority of helping Canadians first in this complicated period. Against this background, instead of escalating tensions with the PRC and running the risk of implicating our national security, Canada can take a two-track policy: to diversify Canadian trade as well as to increase our financial contributions to international organizations, where China is competing for influence.

Looking at Canada’s top three trading partners, the United States stands at US$336.8 billion, accounting for 75.4 percent of all Canadian exports, with China and the United Kingdom accounting for a total 7.2 percent. This staggering overdependence compelled the Trudeau government to sign the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in 2016. This free trade deal allowed 98 percent of all tariffs between the two parties to become duty-free. Businesses are benefiting vis-à-vis increased trade and consumers pay less taxes on imported goods. Canada has also considered similar trading arrangements with its Asian counterparts. In 2018, Canada signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade agreement with ten major countries in the Asia-Pacific region: New Zealand, Peru, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Chile, Brunei, and Australia. These agreements are critical for securing Canada’s supply chain in the post-pandemic world, lessening our dependence on US imports and increasing our economic leverage over China. While a free trade agreement with China is under consideration and can help Canada further diversify its export market, Ottawa must prioritize implementing its agreements with its European and Asian counterparts prior to advancing trade talks with Beijing.

In parallel, the United States’ withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) demands Canada and its allies to help fill the budget vacuum, as China has pledged to increase its contribution to the organization. In its latest contribution, China has announced a $30 million grant to the WHO. Amid this global pandemic, expert-led international bodies need to be transparent and independent from irregular interference of powerful member-states. There have been serious criticisms over the WHO’s response to the pandemic and its relationship with the Chinese government. The US withdrawal only further erodes the organization’s autonomy. 

This nuanced approach can help Canada build leverage while preventing further tensions with the PRC. Joining the Trump administration’s cold war only emboldens the hardliners in Beijing and compromises our citizens’ well-being and economic prosperity. Canada must avoid getting drifted into political hysteria and utilize the rules-based order to hold China accountable, as expanding our export market remains paramount in the long-term.

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