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HomeAsiaPanel Summary Report: Geopolitics of Asia and Chinese Perceptions of Security in the Multipolar World

Panel Summary Report: Geopolitics of Asia and Chinese Perceptions of Security in the Multipolar World

By Johnsen Romero

On July 8, 2021 the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy (IPD) hosted the second panel in its running series on U.S.-China relations. This event was entitled ‘Geopolitics of Asia and Chinese Perceptions of Security in the Multipolar World’. Its focus was on Chinese conceptions of its near abroad as well as the responses of neighbouring Asian states to Beijing’s rise.

Arta Moeini, IPD’s Research Director, shared opening remarks to begin the discussion. 

The panel convened four distinguished guests, including:

  • Michael Swaine, Director, East Asia Program, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
  • Paul Heer, Distinguished Fellow, Center for the National Interest and non-resident Senior Fellow, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
  • Lyle J. Goldstein, Research Professor, China Maritime Studies Institute, Naval War College
  • Richard Hanania, Research Fellow, Defense Priorities and President, Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology

Curt Mills, Senior Reporter for the American Conservative, served as moderator.

Lyle Goldstein opened the discussion by suggesting that Beijing’s current approach to the world is mainly premised on becoming a strong and wealthy state. All other concerns in its grand strategy are subordinate to these objectives. In his view, Chinese behaviour outside of these two pursuits is “very ad hoc” with China’s leadership “making it up as they go along.” Though Beijing has pitched developmental projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, Goldstein believes they are no fundamental threat to outside powers, let alone a part of a coherent vision for the international order. 

Goldstein went on to state that China’s most important goal in the Asia-Pacific is neither overt domination of its neighbours nor a drive to shape how their societies are governed. Rather, it seeks a “veto power” over any policies they might enact that are viewed as threatening to Chinese interests. As part of this picture, Beijing would prefer having its flank supported by a friendly Russia. Goldstein notes that China analogizes friction between Moscow and NATO with the regional dynamics it experiences locally. The only issue in China’s near abroad that could be a wild card in this arrangement is Taiwan. He noted that messaging between Washington and Beijing on this matter needs improvement and questions “whether the current administration has the proper China knowledge to do serious diplomacy.”

Richard Hanania warned about the common Beltway affliction of projecting U.S. ideologies onto the motivations of other countries. He posited that China in all likelihood does not want a world order identical to the postwar U.S. model. He added that other countries in the region do not see China’s rise in ideological terms. By and large, they behave according to the calculation of their national interests. To make this point clear, Hanania noted that if regional consensus had been reduced to fear of Beijing, there would be much louder calls from local states for greater U.S. involvement. Given the reality, he suggested China realizes “there is basically room to negotiate with each of these countries.” Hanania contrasted this with voices in Washington that have no tolerance for China’s form of government. He suggested the latter view diminishes negotiables and widens the gap between the U.S. and Asian countries that “are not as invested” in issues that Washington prizes.

Paul Heer stated that most nations that are third parties to the U.S.-China rivalry see economic opportunity in China’s rise as much as they do risk in its geopolitical weight. More recently, they have experienced an erosion of confidence in Washington and are adjusting their positions accordingly. On this note, he argued that perceptions of the U.S. are of equal significance to perceptions of China. Heer was more confident to characterize the relationship as a “competition between a version of U.S. primacy in the region” that cannot be sustained and a “version of Chinese primacy” that he said “would not necessarily be hostile to or exclusive of a U.S. presence” in Asia. 

At this point, Heer departed from Goldstein on the cohesiveness of China’s grand strategy, stating that counter-U.S. containment efforts showed there was some long-term vision that partly remains opaque. Opportunities to undermine U.S. attempts at containing Beijing picked up after the 2008 recession, which undermined faith in American institutions and appeared to signal its strategic decline. On the other hand, Heer saw promise in the Quad as a potential coordinating force. However, he cautioned that it was “going to be constrained ultimately in its effectiveness by the diverging levels of confidence that the members of the Quad have in each other” and “especially in the United States.”

Michael Swaine argued that China seeks to keep its options as open as possible. In doing so, he said that “China has tried to maintain good relations with many countries around the world to divert or blunt efforts to contain, undermine, or weaken China’s emergence.” An increasingly pessimistic view of Washington, in Swaine’s view, is rooted in an underlying concern that was always present. He suggested that the fragility of U.S.-China relations was always contingent on Chinese balancing that insulated itself against American pressure while looking to avoid outright treatment as an American adversary. In this light, the current state of affairs is not new.

Nevertheless, Swaine reiterated that numerous points of potential cooperation remain, especially on issues of counterterrorism, non-proliferation, and climate change. For every push toward cooperation, however, there is a tendency on both sides of the relationship to securitize engagement. This instability is exacerbated by patterns of thinking in both capitals. Swaine believes that Beijing is more “inclined to miscalculate because it is overconfident” whereas Washington “is more inclined to overreact” to counter perceptions of its relative decline. For a peaceful relationship to continue, Swaine recommended Beijing be more flexible toward domestic developments in Taiwan and that the U.S. remain clear on its commitment to the One China policy. Meanwhile, other states in the region seek to balance both poles against one other to maximize their own autonomy. 

Moving on to the next part of the discussion, all panellists agreed that Taiwan represented the greatest potential danger in the U.S.-China relationship. As the panel shifted toward discussion of economic issues, Swaine brought up that China contributed a third of global growth since 2008 and had been a net boon to its trading partners even as it faced reputational headwinds over its economic policy. Hanania added that even under the Trump Administration and the first rounds of supposed economic divorce, U.S.-China trade was still on an upturn. Goldstein concluded that an often overlooked issue in the structural dynamics of the economic relationship was U.S. dollar hegemony and American financialization.

Curt Mills raised ongoing developments in Afghanistan with reference to the imminent U.S. withdrawal and its potential impact on China’s regional security calculus. Heer casted doubt that a China angle was ever part of initial U.S. intentions when triggering operations in the country. However, Hanania mentioned that Afghanistan’s adjacency to China and its potential rare earth mineral wealth would likely be used as a “post-hoc justification” by American interventionists to slow or halt the withdrawal.

The discussion then pivoted back to Taiwan. Goldstein probed the issue of Taiwanese politics, the historically close relationship between the island and Japan, and how this plays into political debates in Tokyo over Taipei’s fate. Swaine added that Japan struggles with what its strategy should be for the future and contrasted this with Goldstein’s view that Chinese military doctrine may lend credence to a surprise maneuver that creates a fait accompli. Swaine repeated that force would be the last thing Beijing would want to deploy to resolve the dispute. He argued that a blockade would be a more likely pressure tactic in the event of escalation. To combat this possibility, Goldstein judged that there is a need for “energetic diplomacy from Washington” and particularly a “constant sort of dialogue” with Beijing. 

Hanania soberly added that regardless of the scenario, demographic and economic trajectories imply that the passage of time favours Beijing and not Tapei or Washington. With this in mind, he did not envision an intervention that would be triggered by a perceived threat to Chinese legitimacy. Heer disagreed, saying that time appeared to be closing the distance between Taiwanese and U.S. engagement. This, in Heer’s view, would have substantial effects on Beijing’s calculations and increase undesirable variables in Taiwanese politics for the Mainland. In this context, Heer emphasized that “the Chinese are not looking for reasons and excuses to use force against Taiwan. They are looking for excuses and reasons not to.”

The conclusion of the discussion centred on what U.S. military drawdown in the region would look like. Panellists came to the consensus that this was not likely in any foreseeable timeframe, but that economic cooperation was still on the table for U.S. allies that hoped for a ‘return’ of American engagement. Given economic integration, the discussion ended on a consideration of digital currency as well as Chinese objectives around establishing new standards and norms. On this note, panellists raised the major question of its challenge to the U.S. sanction system and the need for Washington to reassess its self-defeating consequences as Beijing becomes the world’s largest economy.

Johnsen Romero is a Policy Research Assistant for the Asia Program at IPD.

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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.  

Panelists:

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.

Panelists:

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.

 

Panelists:

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. 

Panelists:

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. 

 

Panelists:

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.

Panelists:

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.

Panelists:

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.

 

Panelists:

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