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HomeCanada’s Role on the Global StageGreat Power Competition in the Pacific: Charting Canada’s Path Under the Biden Administration

Great Power Competition in the Pacific: Charting Canada’s Path Under the Biden Administration

By Dr. Zachary Paikin

If the next four years offer Ottawa at least a partial reprieve from the turbulent Trump administration, they should be used to plan for the future rather than attempt to restore the status quo ante. Ottawa can no longer relegate itself to being Washington’s junior partner.

In recent years, the core foundations underpinning Canada’s foreign policy have shifted from being coherent to contradictory. As Joe Biden enters the Oval Office, Ottawa’s principal task will be to bring its foreign policy in line with a new international context shaped by great power competition. However, the imperative for Canada over the coming years will not be to ensconce itself within a single bloc, but rather to develop a nuanced and balanced international posture.

Canadian foreign policy during the Cold War was based on two mutually reinforcing pillars. A special relationship with Washington served as the bedrock of national security and helped to amplify Ottawa’s global influence, even as multilateral bodies such as the United Nations offered Canada the opportunity to foster a national identity that contrasted with its more unilateralist southern neighbour. This two-pronged posture also served Canadian interests in the early post-Cold War decades, given Canada’s geographic insulation from foreign threats and the unrivaled power of the US.

Today, Canada retains an overriding and long-term interest in a stable economic relationship with the US. However, Washington has also pursued a posture of global military primacy throughout the post-Cold War era, aimed at remaining the dominant power in every key geo-strategic theatre on the map: Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. This has engendered antagonism and security competition with other powers such as Russia and China, threatening the rules-based international order and open global trading system on which Canada relies to remain a prosperous, independent and consequential actor on the world stage.

In some ways, the current trend toward a Pacific theatre framed by the US-China rivalry poses a greater dilemma for Canada than the four-decade-long Soviet-American standoff. The Cold War era featured what were, in effect, two competing international orders, including a western bloc based on a self-reinforcing logic of mutual dependence between the US and its allies. By contrast, today’s contest between China and the US is occurring within the confines of a single, integrated international order – an order on which Canada has relied to ensure its security and economic growth for decades. Growing competition between Washington and Beijing has been accompanied by a rise in American protectionism and challenges to the future of multilateralism, robbing Canada of the ability to rely on the traditional pillars underpinning its foreign policy.

Given the impact of Washington’s strategic posture in engendering today’s great power contest, it is the repercussions of the US-China rivalry that need to be contained from a Canadian perspective, not China itself. China’s sheer geographic distance from Canada illustrates how it is not China’s rise that poses a direct and vital threat to Canadian security, but rather the decision made by Washington and Beijing to engage one another in a zero-sum competition that imposes strategic constraints on Canada. Nor can the creation of a uniform transatlantic alliance to contain the spread of Soviet communism be replicated in the contemporary Pacific theatre, especially given the central role played by China in global trade. US allies such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea are members of the recently signed, China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) mega-trading bloc, while the European Union recently concluded negotiations in principle on a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with Beijing.

Although some have predicted that a “mini-détente” will occur between Washington and Beijing at the outset of the Biden administration, the fundamental dynamics that drive competition between the two powers will not change so long as the United States continues to gear its strategy toward preserving its regional primacy rather than envisioning a more inclusive order in East Asia. Even proponents of US competition with China concede that while certain middle powers may be interested in balancing against the geopolitical implications of China’s rise, not all wish to contain Beijing from an economic, technological or values-based perspective. For instance, China conducts more trade with ASEAN than it does with either the EU or the US, even as some Southeast Asian countries remain wary of Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy. The fact that US allies were not more vocal in criticizing outgoing President Donald Trump’s assault on democracy during the transition period highlights the extent to which they view Washington as an instrumental security provider rather than the leader of an international “community of values.”

In short, although Canada’s military alliance and intelligence sharing with the US will remain the bedrock of its security posture, Ottawa cannot align itself entirely with Washington’s efforts to compete with China, nor can it expect the US-China rivalry to disappear over the short or medium term. The fact that Canada faces a strategic constraint imposed by deepening great power rivalry, rather than just a strategic threat posed by a rising China, illustrates how the current malaise in Canada-China relations owes itself less to the particulars of the relationship itself and more to Ottawa’s failure to develop an adequate, overarching strategic paradigm to guide its foreign policy in a changing world.

For the past several decades, the Pacific theatre has most often been referred to as the “Asia-Pacific” region, an image which emphasizes the integration of rising Asian markets with the Americas. As the security dimension of regional affairs has gradually become more salient, the more trade-friendly “Asia-Pacific” has been displaced by an “Indo-Pacific” imaginary, centred more on the need to preserve freedom of navigation in the face of an increasingly assertive China. However, the “Indo-Pacific” paradigm’s implicit association with US regional leadership leaves it poorly suited to address Canada’s unique interests. Nor does the concept appear completely viable, given that the largest economies abutting the Indian and Pacific Oceans – India and the United States, respectively – now find themselves outside the two largest trading blocs that are likely to determine the shape of economic relations in the region over the coming decades: the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and RCEP.

A more appropriate paradigm to guide Canada’s regional posture would centre on the Eurasia-Pacific. This imaginary simultaneously connotes the growing centrality of the Pacific theatre in an age of great power rivalry, as well as the increasingly interconnected nature of an integrated Eurasian supercontinent. These are not two distinct paradigms geared toward separate regions – continental Eurasia and the maritime Pacific – but rather an integrated concept aimed at guiding Canada’s foreign policy thinking in a changing world as it relates to the Pacific theatre.

A Eurasia-Pacific paradigm would accomplish several things for Canada. First, it is less Sinocentric than its “Indo-Pacific” counterpart, thus embodying a more integrated and comprehensive approach to engaging the Pacific theatre. Moreover, in contrast with paradigms implicitly centred on US leadership, the Eurasia-Pacific concept views the process of economic integration across Eurasia as central to global geopolitics and geoeconomics. An emphasis on the integrated nature of Eurasia – which does not rely on the projection of US power and goes against Washington’s traditional strategy of upholding divisions within the Eastern Hemisphere as a means of asserting its primacy – is designed to encourage Canada to identify its own independent strategic interests as global power shifts eastward. The diffuse balance of power across the vast Eurasian supercontinent also highlights how order can only be achieved through consensus and compromise rather than through a zero-sum standoff.

This strategy also helps to illustrate the interconnected nature of the eastward (European) and westward (Asian) vectors of Canadian foreign policy, with a secure Euro-Atlantic theatre required as a “buffer” for Canada to be able to devote its focus and resources toward the Pacific. This could also allow Canada to “compartmentalize” the current Russia-West rivalry within the Euro-Atlantic theatre and foster different terms of engagement with Brussels and Moscow in the Eurasian context. For instance, while Moscow has adopted a revanchist posture toward a Euro-Atlantic security order from which it is largely excluded, the Asian and Arctic dimensions of Russian foreign policy are geared much more toward preserving the status quo. This approach could serve to maximize Canada’s array of possible partners and its room for manoeuvre in a Pacific theatre where Ottawa’s engagement has been lacklustre and where the future of rules-based interaction between states is likely to be decided.

A more strategically capable and independent Canada is in the interest of the United States. Canada’s national geography, featuring regions that are cut off from one another by the Rockies and the Canadian Shield, ensures that it can never pose a security threat to the US. Rather, it is the risk that Canada will become a strategic cripple on the world stage that poses the greater long-term threat to continental security in North America. If, as expected, the next four years offer Ottawa at least a partial reprieve from the turbulent Trump administration, they should be used to plan for the future rather than attempt to restore the status quo ante. The shift in US foreign policy from world-historical ambition to great power competition already began during Barack Obama’s presidency. Ottawa can thus no longer relegate itself to being Washington’s junior partner in the case of the former, nor can it afford to do so in the case of the latter.

Dr. Zachary Paikin is a Nonresident Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and Collaborator with the Network for Strategic Analysis, funded by the Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security (MINDS) programme of the Department of National Defence of Canada.

Image credit: European Parliament, Gage Skidmore


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