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RCEP in the Contest between Washington and Beijing

By Douglas Macgregor

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to Beijing got off to a rocky start this week in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin. Almost before Sherman could commence on the now nearly perfunctory display of U.S. grandstanding and the obligatory lecture on norms and values, Xie Feng, China’s assistant foreign minister, told her in the bluntest of terms that China’s leaders have no patience for her “serious concerns” about China’s strategic agenda, let alone her moralizing, self-righteous tone.

Accustomed to bullying foreign heads of state and their diplomats on topics ranging from human rights and trade to climate change, Sherman—who started her career in social work—seems to have genuinely expected the Chinese to listen to Washington’s litany of complaints. That delusion is not Wendy Sherman’s alone. 

As he travels across Asia, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is attacking China for its “aggression against India, destabilizing military activity and other forms of coercion against the people of Taiwan, and genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.” Austin’s agenda also involves buttressing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). Consisting of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, the QUAD is widely perceived in Asia as the centerpiece of America’s containment strategy for China. 

Yet, so far, the QUAD has been more smoke than fire. India and Australia are lukewarm when it comes to actions that may provoke China, and Japan seems more interested in stabilizing relations with Beijing than in confronting it. At least one major reason for the QUAD’s inefficacy is the creation of a new Asian trading bloc called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP—a free trade agreement between China and the 15 Asia-Pacific nations of Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. 

Together with China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK)—three of the four largest economies in Asia, the 15 member countries represent roughly a third of the world’s population and a third of global gross domestic product (GDP). Australia, meanwhile, is the top energy exporter within RCEP and the single largest source of coal and liquified natural gas (LNG) for China, Japan, and the ROK.

The strategic implications are inescapable. RCEP will not only surpass the European Union to become the world’s largest free trading bloc, but it will also lift tariffs and duties on 90% of commodities traded within the bloc over the next 20 years and significantly boost regional energy trade. RCEP will also establish new rules for e-commerce in Asia to include trade and intellectual property. 

It is easy to imagine that the sheer magnitude of trade will likely shift the center of gravity for global economic activity to Asia. In any case, China is now destined to be the dominant force influencing the rules of trade in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington is only just beginning to grasp the implications. Recognizing a few basic facts could help toward that end.

First, in its dealings with the world, Beijing works hard to avoid military confrontation and unnecessary escalation. China makes no attempt to export Confucianism and pursues a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of its potential customers. Instead, Beijing focuses ardently on its economic interests employing the power of money in all imaginable forms to cultivate customers and clients. As a result, Asian states are understandably reluctant to be identified with Washington’s scheme to contain or strangle China. RCEP members realize the huge economic potential of China and have no appetite for antagonizing Beijing, let alone go to war with it; indeed, they look to the Agreement as an efficient way to do business with the world’s largest market and advance their own interests.

Second, Americans fail to understand that Japan’s history of conflict with China revolved around the former’s unwillingness to make itself a tributary state of Greater China for the sake of gaining access to Chinese markets, not to mention the struggle for control of the Korean Peninsula. President Xi and his government have resolved the first conflict. Xi has given Japan complete access to Chinese markets from agriculture to mining and manufacturing. And Tokyo is also viewed by Beijing as an important source of capital investment for the foreseeable future. As for the second fault line, until Washington disengages its forces from the ROK, there will be no resolution of the conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

Finally, Washington’s inclination to militarize its dispute with China when the strategic competition in Asia actually centers on economic, not military, concerns is worse than foolish. It is also self-defeating, akin to a hurricane blowing down the White House and the occupant being concerned solely with repairing the mailbox.

One general problem is that the Washington national security establishment is too self-absorbed to understand the PRC and the 1.4 billion people it governs. For decades, Washington has failed to fathom that the vast majority of the Chinese in the mainland actually support the current regime in Beijing. There is little doubt that China’s central government in Beijing enjoys high approval ratings among adult Chinese. The question is “why”?

Other than the immense economic successes of China, the reason for general satisfaction with Beijing’s governance is due in large part to Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. In China, corrupt local officials not only face jail time, but the threat of execution. The Chinese might have a different conception of law and order when compared to those of Americans and Europeans, but they nonetheless care deeply for justice and Xi is seen as delivering on that front. In contrast to their views about the central government in Beijing however, when Chinese people are questioned about the competence and integrity of local government, they are much more critical. 

Western policymakers would do well to also keep in mind that contemporary China is preeminently a Confucian society with a State-controlled economic order. Chinese or “nativized” Marxism never supplanted these cultural norms. Within its model of state capitalism, Beijing is clearly adept at co-opting clients through corruption, building coalitions against common foes, and subverting or infiltrating competing or opposing governments with cyberwarfare and various economic schemes; and Beijing is not shy to use such instruments of statecraft to achieve strategic advantages. Nevertheless, apart from the Leninist tactics and rhetoric Beijing employs in the conduct of its foreign policy, China today has steered away from Communism. 

Do these points suggest that armed conflict between Washington and Beijing is inevitable? Certainly not. As noted earlier, Beijing regards armed conflict as antithetical to commerce and harmful to its business interests. Chinese ruling elites have therefore adopted a different, more cautious approach toward Washington premised on strategic patience that could be summed up as: 

“Let America fall on its own sword in pursuit of global military hegemony while its government dramatically expands the U.S. money supply miring the country in inflation and economic meltdown and its intelligence apparatus wages war at home against its politically undesirable citizens fomenting social unrest.” After all, the Chinese have a much keener sense of history than most Americans, enough to know that arrogance is the ultimate cause in the downfall of the mighty.  

To be fair, China has plenty of problems at home. In some sense, it can be argued that China and the United States are engaged in a contest of competitive collapse. However, unlike Washington, which always seeks instant results and short-term gains, Beijing will work steadily on its domestic problems and wait patiently for Washington to eventually either fix its own house or turn its bellicose sword back on itself.

Douglas Macgregor is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and former Senior Advisor to the Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Virginia and is a senior fellow at The American Conservative. 

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