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Canada-China Relations: The Case For Prudence

By Stephen Smith

The end of the nearly three-year saga sparked by the detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 has spawned a reckoning of Canada’s relationship with China and offers an opportunity to reflect on the changed international system in which we find ourselves. One of the most consequential changes is that the United States and China now openly acknowledge that they are engaged in an ideological struggle. In his speech marking the centenary of China’s Communist Party, Chinese President Xi Jinping made clear that one-party rule is a form of political organization best suited for modernization and interstate rivalry in the 21st century. In his debut address to the United Nations, US President Joe Biden countered that the “future belongs to those who give their people the ability to breathe free, not those who seek to suffocate their people with an iron hand of authoritarianism”. 

Canada must reflect on the risks posed by the return of ideology and what this means for Canadian foreign policy. A China policy based on ideological conviction is likely to contribute to intensifying the security dilemma between the great powers, further eroding the “rules-based international order” which Canada has a strong interest in preserving. Instead, Canada should adopt a posture rooted in prudence, which requires rejecting ideological confrontation and recognizing that the post-Western world features multiple modernities and centres of power.

The return of ideology

If 1989 marked the dénouement of the Communist regime, then the ensuing three decades have witnessed a remarkable turnaround in its fortunes. The resilience of China’s party-state, its ability to adapt and deliver real results while maintaining one party rule is a serious challenge to Western conceptions of political development. Speaking at the 2020 Munich Security Conference, where attendees gathered under the theme of “Westlessness”, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz referenced China building the 1,000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in only 10 days at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in February 2020 to make a larger point about the decaying allure of the West: “In the past, democracy, rule of law, and freedom of speech was always hand in hand with economic success, with growth, with wealth. And now, we live in a time where other systems can be economically successful as well.” The panel’s host, the celebrated historian of the 1989 communist revolutions Timothy Garton Ash, agreed with Kurz, adding: “There is an alternative modernity, something we didn’t think was the case in the 1990s.”

It is of no small consequence that this recognition has reached Washington, D.C. The last year of the Trump administration witnessed a sharp escalation in ideological rhetoric that drew distinctions between “Communist China” and the “Free World”, reaching a crescendo in July 2020 when then-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo gave a speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in which he hinted at inducing regime change in China, though stopped short of explicitly endorsing this goal. The Biden administration has tempered its tone but not substance, continuing to frame US-China relations as a Manichean showdown between democracy and autocracy, and in the process emboldening opportunists to double down on militant and exclusionary tactics. Following an ignominious twenty-year global campaign against ‘terror’, America’s generals and spymasters are already turning their attention to their next adversary. Silicon Valley’s tech titans are pushing for the next generation of AI-enhanced weaponry to be controlled by ‘free societies’. 

For its part, China also recognizes the emergence of a particular kind of great power struggle, one that is not just between competing nation-states, but distinct political systems. As Xi Jinping said during a 2014 closed-door speech on domestic  security:

“as the international balance of power continues to develop in a direction favourable to China, America and other Western countries […] have stepped up their strategy to Westernize and split China; the contest between two social systems and two ideologies is intensifying.”

Like the Stephen Harper government in its early years, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s election campaign framed China as an unambiguous threat to Canadian values and interests. His platform carefully distinguished the Chinese people from China’s leadership, as if these can be neatly separated and governments swapped out like pieces of Lego. The harsh rule of Xi Jinping – evidenced in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, hostage diplomacy and more – has aroused overwhelming support for a more assertive China policy among Canadians. A recent Nanos Research poll found that 87 percent of Canadians support or somewhat support joining with the US, Britain and Australia “to contain China’s growing power”. As one commentor put it in the Toronto Star recently: “Canada cannot, in good conscience, pretend it is dealing with a normal country when it comes to Xi’s China”. But while it may provide some emotional satisfaction to cast China as an abnormal country, it will do little to advance Canada’s interests.

The Liberal government appears keen to adopt a nuanced China strategy that acknowledges the reality of Chinese power without designating China as an adversary. Marc Garneau has adopted a 4-Cs approach to China: “coexist”, “compete”, “co-operate” and “challenge”. Yet the problem with this approach concerns how to compartmentalize issues within each “C” as Canada’s broader relationship with China becomes securitized. Issues that fall into the “challenge” category, such as human rights, easily touch upon Beijing’s so-called “bottom lines”, where any foreign criticism is categorically rejected as interference into its sovereign affairs. Unsurprisingly, China has rejected the Biden administration’s own attempt at “compartmentalized” cooperation. It is unlikely that China would welcome a similar approach by much less powerful countries such as Canada.

The resilience of China’s party-state

China’s Communist Party is convinced that its governance model will eventually prove superior to liberal democracy over the long term. Party-state theoreticians extol the virtues of “concentrating power to achieve big things”. Vesting in itself unchecked power to act in the ‘general will’, Xi Jinping’s party-state has tools and resolve to quell pluralization and open political exchange even as it seeks to foster a dynamic and innovative society. The dangers of an unaccountable sovereign power are obvious. But China has shown formidable strengths in overcoming repeated crises – economic, ecological, social, geopolitical – when it is focused on its own survival. 

The resilience of China’s party-state is distinct from its expansion. Research suggests that China’s hegemonic prospects are hampered by its dismal soft power. As the University of Ottawa’s Srdjan Vucetic and colleagues show, China’s identity narratives are “insular, nationalist, and propagandistic”. China does seek to promote its governance model as a distinct and equally legitimate form of modernity.  But the Party is chiefly concerned with preserving its rule at home rather than “exporting” its values to the West. For Canada, recognizing this distinction is crucial to avoid over-inflating the threat posed by Chinese communism.    

The risks of securitization

What role should Canada play in an international system where ideology and exclusionary values become more salient? This new environment will be challenging for a country whose diplomacy has traditionally been guided by “middle power” aims of being a good global citizen and acting as a conflict mediator among great powers. The preservation of the “rules-based international order”, whose sinews are multilateral institutions, requires Canada to promote co-operation across national and cultural divides. 

Perhaps the most tempting response to China’s rise is a “values first” strategy. Such an approach would have the following characteristics: placing Canada in the “democratic camp” led by the United States and opposed to an “authoritarian camp” led by China; demonization of China’s authoritarian social system; engaging in efforts to de-legitimate the Communist Party and Chinese government, and; aligning closely with the US containment strategy against China. 

However, a values first strategy brings a two-fold risk. First, it collapses the space for a strategic re-thinking of Canada’s relationship with a rising superpower. That China poses a risk to Canadian interests in some areas, such as telecommunications and intellectual property, is clear. But China is also a major contributor of global public goods and central to solving the most pressing problems facing the world, for instance in vaccine production and distribution to the developing world.

The second risk is foregoing autonomy in foreign policy by anchoring Canada’s position firmly with the United States and in the Western alliance. Binding too closely to the US may dilute Canada’s credibility as a moral and independent actor, just as the international system is undergoing a historic rebalance of power. The refusal of the Liberal government to publicly issue a China policy framework will be derided as an example of strategic incoherence. But, for a middle power like Canada, there is a risk in getting caught between both great powers. Biden’s nominee for ambassadorship to Canada, David Cohen, reportedly told his nomination hearing in Washington that he wants to see greater US-Canada cooperation to counter the “existential threat that is China”. These are strong words normally reserved for an enemy that seeks to destroy you. There is absolutely no evidence that China poses a threat of such magnitude, and this kind of hyperbole diminishes what should be a serious and open debate on Canada’s strategy towards China. 

In the years to come, values and ideology are going to become more pronounced in global politics, especially in the emerging great power rivalry. In this new environment, where Canada will face complex and uncomfortable trade-offs, the best policy may be one of prudence. This does not imply shirking the need to adopt a clear strategic posture towards China. But it does require a careful articulation of Canadian interests in a world where global power lacks a gravitational centre and visions of modernity are contested. 

Stephen Smith (@stephen_n_smith) is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy where he is affiliated with the Belt and Road in Global Perspective research initiative.

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