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HomeAsiaPanel Summary Report: Assessing Canada-China Relations

Panel Summary Report: Assessing Canada-China Relations

By Alexandra Slobodov

On February 24, 2021 the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) hosted a panel discussion on ‘Assessing Canada-China Relations – Challenges and Opportunities.’ The focus of the panel was to reflect on past challenges, as well as discuss the short, medium, and long term considerations for Canada-China relations. The panel was organized into two parts. The first consisted of opening remarks by Senator Woo and the three panelists. The second focused on a Q&A with the audience.

We were thrilled to have Senator Yuen Pau Woo make the opening remarks at the event.

Our three distinguished panelists included:

  • Dr. Paul Evans, Professor, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, UBC
  • Dr. Henry (Huiyao) Wang, President, Centre for China and Globalization
  • Graham Shantz, President, Canada-China Business Council

This panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Wenran Jiang, Advisor to the Asia Program at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.

Moderator Dr. Wenran Jiang began the panel by summarizing the state of Canada-China relations, explaining that they hit a low point in 2018 when Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained in China following Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou on an extradition request by Washington. While last year marked the 50 year anniversary of Canada-China diplomatic relations, celebrations were replaced by mutual accusations. More recently, Canada led the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations. Last week, the Canadian Parliament passed a motion to label the situation in Xinjiang as a genocide.

In his opening remarks, Senator Yuen Pau Woo stated that there is now a deep desire to rethink Canada-China relations, with many people asking if Canada and China should even seek to improve the relationship at all. The foreign policy model in which major powers can compartmentalize issues while allowing other aspects of the relationship to move forward has now been severely challenged. While President Xi Jinping has brought about the decreased role of collective leadership in the Communist Party of China (CCP), Senator Woo argued that the regime itself had not fundamentally changed. Rather, China has grown more prominent and influential since the 2008 global financial crisis–a turning point for China’s evolution into a serious economic power. Senator Woo suggested that the West’s desire to rethink China is not about ideology, but rather about its rise. He also added that the US-China strategic competition will last decades, and as the competition deepens, their interests will outweigh the views and preferences of third countries, such as Canada. As such, the US-China rivalry will be the single biggest factor shaping relations between Ottawa and Beijing. The challenge will be for Ottawa to find the degree of freedom to navigate this great power rivalry.

Senator Woo continued by stating that calls to rethink the relationship have focused on identifying the problems, rather than the problematique, which would be identifying whether the US and Canada consider China to be an enemy, adversary, competitor or partner. Senator Woo referenced his soon to be published article in the International Journal in which he suggests “global neighbour” as an appropriate term: while one may not like their neighbour, they must learn to live with them. He then moved to discuss the unhealthy context that discussions on China now take place, with anyone in Canada who offers a view that is considered to be even slightly aligned with China running the risk of being labelled as disloyal or a stooge for the CCP. This trend is symptomatic of a larger development, in which “litmus tests” on China-related issues seek to box individuals into neat “pro-China” or “anti-China” categories.

Dr. Henry (Huiyao) Wang expressed his disappointment about the decline of Sino-Canadian relations, as he recalled that Canada was the first G8 country to recognize the People’s Republic of China. He added that for his generation, Canada represented a peaceful and friendly country with an occasionally independent foreign policy. Dr. Wang stated that there is tremendous goodwill between Canada and China, partially due to the growth of the Chinese population in Canada, student exchanges and tourism. He stressed that he is cautiously optimistic, particularly due to US President Joe Biden who has thus far pursued a much more pragmatic and realistic approach compared with former President Donald Trump. He argued that ideological and geopolitical conflicts should be set aside in order to address issues such as climate change and the pandemic. Dr. Wang stressed his hope that China can work pragmatically with Canada, as well as the US, EU, Japan, Australia and other states.

Graham Shantz explained that 70 percent of the members of the organization he leads, the Canada China Business Council (CCBC), consists of small and medium size enterprises, with another 20 percent consisting of educational institutions–reflecting the people-to-people dimension and change in Canada’s interests in China. Due to the changing demographics in China, they are already experiencing a shrinking labour force and a change in the nature of consumption, though China still sees rapid growth and economic success due to the creation of wealth, urbanization and new industries. Shantz argued that for Canadian economic interests, capital flow matters more than exports and imports. He added that since the climate change agenda is a top priority for North America, as well as for China, Canada should look into this further given its knowledge, business and government interests in that area.

Dr. Paul Evans began by discussing Canada’s vote in the House of Commons on the Xinjiang Genocide Resolution, which he argued was a significant indicator of the state of relations, as well as of the prospects for future relations. While it is not a binding resolution, the 266 votes, compounded with the national opinion polls that show only 15 percent of Canadians view China favourably, does indicate the balance of opinion in Canada. This demonstrates how far the Canadian media and information landscape has shifted on matters related to China in the past two to five years. Dr. Evans stressed that it is not currently a healthy environment for considering alternative approaches to China, and the election of President Biden will result in Canada having less, rather than more or equal, room to vary from the US approach. While the Biden administration works to identify the right balance between strategic competition and collaboration, Canada will have to decide whether it will work in defence of a rules-based international order or engage in strengthening multilateral institutions. Dr. Evans explained that Canada has long told China that it can be close to the US while simultaneously remaining independent. However, the current trend is toward a reduced amount of independence and increasingly negative attitudes toward China. He argues that a resolution to the Huawei affair and the release of the 2 Michaels will not necessarily lead to a complete reversal in souring relations.

The panel then moved into the question and answer portion. Dr. Jiang began by asking Dr. Wang about what China can do to improve the relationship. Dr. Wang expressed his disappointment at the current state of bilateral relations, and suggested that both Canada and China have followed their respective rights, as well as interpretation of events. Now, however, there are many encouraging signs, due to a general resurgence of a multilateral and collective spirit, and with President Biden considering China as a competitor, rather than an adversary. He called for the return of multilateralism, specifically mentioning the prospective Iran-US talks, which China is interested in joining.

In response to a question about the extent to which Canada relies on China economically, Shantz stressed that while China is the second largest economy, it is still far behind the US in terms of economic importance. However, for Canadian long-term interests, the flow of people through immigration, student exchanges and tourism is by far the most important. He also explained that as states in Asia are undergoing an energy transition, they are interested in an alternative energy supply from a reliable and politically stable supplier like Canada. While it is possible to diversify into other markets, China is the largest import market of energy and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Shantz noted that, in 2020 alone, Canada sold one billion dollars worth of oil to China. He argued that cutting off trade would risk hurting Canada more than it would help it.

Next, a question about the impact that deteriorating Canada-China relations would have on educational institutions was directed to Dr. Evans. He explained that the world is now in a state of techno-nationalism, with universities under pressure to safeguard research, exercise more diligence in regard to partners and the end use of research conducted. As the definition of national security items widens to not just focus on dual-use military equipment and artificial intelligence, it will become tied to human rights issues as well.

Senator Woo was then asked to comment on the role of Chinese-Canadian communities in relation to the ongoing tensions. He began by stressing that it is crucial to remain vigilant about foreign interference, particularly from China. In regard to anti-Chinese racism, Senator Woo identified anti-China sentiment as the single biggest driver and stressed that racists do not distinguish which regime a person supports. He finished by highlighting the diversity of views among the Chinese-Canadian community and arguing that it is problematic to define Chinese-Canadians by their differing views on the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. This will cause them to be seen as foreigners advocating for issues in their homeland rather than citizens of a multicultural Canadian society.

In the final portion of the panel, Dr. Jiang asked the Canadian panelists to briefly summarize what they would like Dr. Wang to convey to the Chinese authorities, and asked Dr. Wang to also describe China’s wish list of actions Canada should take to improve bilateral relations.

Dr. Evans began by stressing his hope to deepen discussions with Chinese colleagues and universities on the rules for academic and student exchanges, as well as research in the context of concern over intellectual property and academic freedom. Shantz echoed Dr. Evans, stressing the importance of maintaining flows into the future. He also underscored that China’s leadership will be required for global economic growth. Senator Woo suggested that China should make an effort to understand that Canadians express views on values they feel strongly about.

Dr. Wang ended by noting that other states will have to accept China and its growth, adding that China is a positive actor in global multilateralism on issues such as climate change. He expressed optimism given that President Biden replaced the term “rivalry” with  “strategic competitor,” and stated his hope that collaboration between Canada and China will continue, given the many existing bilateral ties, as well as the goodwill the two states share.


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