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HomeAsiaCanada’s Interests in Asia: More Engagement, Less Containment

Canada’s Interests in Asia: More Engagement, Less Containment

Image credit: US Embassy in New Zealand

By Zachary Paikin

Ottawa should avoid a short-term, containment-centric approach to China and align its efforts with those that emphasize the importance of reaching an equilibrium between engagement and a firm hand with Beijing.

The year 2020 was a challenging one for China. On top of the COVID-19 pandemic, the past twelve months have witnessed growing concerns over the situations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, a border clash with India, and an increasingly assertive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. Nonetheless, the year was capped off by the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Asian mega-trading bloc (RCEP) and the conclusion in principle of a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between China and the European Union (CAI).

In short, rising tensions between Beijing and other capitals have failed to produce a monolithic anti-China coalition – a fact which should serve as the starting point for any discussion of what Canada’s national interests are in a shifting Asian landscape. This raises the question of which states (or groupings of states) Canada should identify as its long-term strategic partners. Upon examination, Canadian and US regional interests are less aligned than is conventionally assumed.

It is worth re-emphasizing this point: China cannot be contained. The US may successfully persuade its allies to ban Huawei’s 5G technology and Washington may slap tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese products, but these moves alone will not arrest China’s long-term rise. RCEP has further cemented Beijing’s place within Asia’s economic framework, even as trade between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) already exceeds China’s trade with either the EU or the US.

This should raise doubts about whether the US-backed vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) provides an accurate reading of emerging regional dynamics. The terms “free” and “open” hint, not so subtly, that the paradigm is designed to hedge against the possible implications of China’s rise. If the goal of the “Indo-Pacific” imaginary is to underline the region’s multipolarity, then it merely reflects Asia’s existing balance of power. If its purpose is to ensure that Beijing only plays a secondary role in shaping Asia’s economic and security architecture, then it will not succeed. ASEAN has made reference to the “Indo-Pacific”, but with the aim of emphasizing its own regional “centrality” and insulation from great power politics rather than to join an anti-China crusade.

For its part, the EU-China CAI points to Europe’s reluctance to take sides in any new cold war between the US and China. This position is underpinned by a broad popular consensus across the continent and is buttressed by the EU’s desire for greater “strategic autonomy”. The bloc has labelled China a “systemic rival” and insists that CAI represents merely one component of its China strategy, leaving ample room for transatlantic cooperation on other China-related issues. Nonetheless, the agreement signals a belief in Brussels that there is no substitute for engagement with Beijing. Situated at opposite ends of the massive Eurasian supercontinent, China does not pose a military threat to Europe. Moreover, the EU retains a strong incentive to continue deepening its economic relationship with China, with the latter having overtaken the US as its top trading partner in goods in 2020.

Given the sheer distance between the world’s two leading powers, the extent to which China’s rise represents a direct threat to US security is also circumscribed. Rather, the challenge that Beijing poses is to American regional primacy. Efforts to maintain this primacy have invited a zero-sum competition with China which stands to erode – rather than preserve – elements of the existing rules-based international order. Such a contest threatens Canada’s ability to secure an independent place for itself on the world stage, whether through trade diversification or multilateral problem-solving.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s recent statement that Canada’s national interest in the nascent great power competition should be “expressed in a way that aligns” with that of the United States is therefore problematic. Canada retains a significant interest in preserving its alliance with the US, but this does not imply that Canadian and American interests align in every region across the globe. A more honest appraisal of where our interests diverge would strengthen the substance and impact of Canada-US cooperation in instances when our two countries partner with each other.

The past several decades of growth and relative stability in Asia have occurred in the context of US regional primacy. However, as the regional balance of power evolves, these two phenomena will not necessarily remain mutually reinforcing. By upholding the historical memory of World War II and discouraging a Sino-Japanese rapprochement on a par with the Franco-German postwar reconciliation, Washington is pursuing its own interest of playing off regional actors against one another to hedge against the possible emergence of a local hegemon. US primacy has been a means to a desired end – Canada would do well not to confuse the latter with the former.

Given the emphasis placed on the continental and transatlantic dimensions of its foreign policy over the past seven decades, Canada remains militarily and strategically underinvested in the Pacific theatre. Moreover, the Trudeau government has failed to articulate a clear and comprehensive paradigm to guide the Asian vector of Canadian foreign policy, which has helped to transform the issue of relations with China into a domestic political football. These trends have left Canada in a reactive posture and bereft of a consensus national strategy in the face of a shifting international order. Canada is perceived as an unserious and inconsistently engaged player whose largely values-centric foreign policy betrays the absence of genuine interests.

If Canada wishes to play a role in shaping the Pacific theatre’s regional architecture in line with its interests, then its primary partners should be the EU and ASEAN. Ottawa inked a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Brussels in 2016, while Canada and ASEAN agreed last year to elevate their dialogue to the level of a strategic partnership, providing a solid foundation for the further deepening of relations.

Given the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and India’s absence from RCEP, the FOIP concept will inevitably adopt military rather than economic overtones. This does not play to Canada’s existing strengths. Ottawa should avoid a short-term, containment-centric approach to China and align its efforts with those that emphasize the importance of reaching an equilibrium between engagement and a firm hand with Beijing. (Sustained dialogue with Japan and India will also prove useful in this regard. Tokyo has increasingly sought to balance competition with Beijing with attempts to adjust to the implications of China’s rise, while New Delhi’s longstanding posture of non-alignment is likely to survive the recent downturn in Sino-Indian relations.)

If Ottawa decides that outlining an “Indo-Pacific” strategy is in the national interest, then this should be closely coordinated with the EU and ASEAN, explicitly avoid the “free and open” qualifier, and underscore the importance of positive-sum interaction in the region. Any strategy that exposes a gulf between pronouncements and capabilities risks sidelining Canada even further from emerging regional dynamics. Adopting a longer-term perspective would also align with other Canadian strategic interests. One of the things that Canada does exceptionally well is accept and integrate large numbers of immigrants. Sustained population growth can serve as a means of increasing Canada’s international clout, creating a mutually reinforcing link between foreign and domestic policy.

Canada should resist the urge to align with other Anglo-Saxon countries and prioritize a dispassionate analysis of its national interests. The US and Australia have been FOIP’s strongest proponents, while post-Brexit Britain has taken a stern line against Beijing and sought to strengthen the military dimension of its engagement in Asia. Political culture and strategic culture are two different things. Internalizing this fact will likely represent the difference between whether Canada adopts a term-setting mentality in the emerging international order or cements its status as a vassal of the United States.

Dr. Zachary Paikin is a Nonresident Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels (CEPS).


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