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HomeAsiaTragic War in Ukraine Shows the Need for Strategic Empathy with China

Tragic War in Ukraine Shows the Need for Strategic Empathy with China

Image credit: Finnish Government

By José Niño

During the United States’ so-called “unipolar” moment of the 1990s, the prevailing wisdom was that the world entered an “end of history” moment where Western liberalism was destined to be the universal standard of governance worldwide. To many policy-makers in the West, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant liberal democracy and market-based economies could now flourish worldwide.

To be sure, there were laggards to this liberal triumph such as China, Cuba, and North Korea, but the overriding assumption was that the march of progress would be inevitable. China, especially, it was believed, would liberalize through the American policy of engagement and increased economic intercourse with the U.S. The logic at the time went as follows: Increased trade with China and its integration into the global economic order would motivate Beijing to liberalize not just in economic terms but also politically. To help along this supposedly self-fulfilling prophecy, U.S. policymakers granted Beijing permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) status and supported its accession into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the early 2000s. 

With the break-up of the Warsaw Pact and the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into Eastern Europe, the conventional wisdom in Washington also professed the end of the ‘sphere of influence’ politics. Liberalism’s perceived triumph during the Cold War convinced many Atlantacists that geopolitical conflict would simply vanish and permanent peace would be achieved in our time — once all nations of the world inevitably became liberal democracies. 

In reality, history did not end. War did not disappear. And, many countries resisted democratization. Some like Russia even reversed course, rejecting the liberal paradigm in toto under Vladimir Putin. Those false, if lofty, liberal assumptions were further proved hollow when Russia asserted itself in its traditional sphere of influence in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014). In fact, Russia has been engaged militarily in the latter country for eight years to repel what it perceives as Western encroachment into its sphere of influence. 

The Russian redline on Ukraine culminated, towards the end of February, in a large-scale incursion to demilitarize and impose neutrality on Ukraine. That tragic war is on-going with devastating impact on civilians, but it is a reminder that the regional security dynamics and distribution of power matter: Russia views Ukraine as an essential and non-negotiable component of its sphere; and as a regional hegemon, Moscow has the power to bend Kiev to its will and will do so, no matter what Washington or NATO demand or how they frame the conflict.

Accepting this reality — that regions matter and have historically-rooted hierarchies — is not to endorse the spheres of influence, but rather to engage with the world as is. The same situation applies in East Asia vis-a-vis China and Taiwan. While Beijing has not taken kinetic action thus far, it has reiterated its unwavering desire to unify Taiwan with the mainland. It has even stated its willingness to employ military force against Taiwan should it formally declare its independence. Like Russia, China is poised to eventually challenge the status quo within its sphere of influence. 

Moreover, China has taken stronger stances towards its maritime claims in the East and South China Seas, finding itself at loggerheads with countries such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. As the traditional guarantor of security in the Asia-Pacific region since the end of World War II, the U.S. has invariably gotten more involved in these disputes as it gradually makes its “pivot to Asia.”

With Washington increasingly ramping up its military presence in Asia and building a balancing coalition to contain China, there is now heightened speculation about a potential hot conflict between the U.S. and China. Certainly, confrontation between these two nuclear powers is not inevitable, but to de-escalate tensions and reach a point of peaceful coexistence will require some strategic empathy on Washington’s part — something that Atlanticists have ignored for the past 30 years with regards to Russia’s valid concerns about NATO’s expansion into what Moscow considers its sphere of influence.

Analyzing China’s history offers a better understanding as to why China desires a larger role in shaping security affairs in the Asia-Pacific region. From the latter half of the 19th century up until World War II, China found itself in a vulnerable state — open to aggression by external actors. This “century of humiliation” is still seared into the memory of many Chinese foreign policymakers. Some of the most notable instances included: 

  1. China’s defeats during the Opium Wars which opened the door for European powers to carve out their own spheres of influence in China.
  2. The First Sino-Japanese War in which China was compelled to recognize Korea’s independence, hand over the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) to Japan, and to pay Japan a stiff indemnity.
  3. The Eight-Nation Alliance intervention that put down the Boxer Rebellion, interpreted as a further demonstration of China’s inability to keep foreign actors from exercising power and coercive actions in its territory.
  4. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 which resulted in the establishment of the puppet kingdom of Manchuko. This later became the launchpad for Japan’s subsequent military campaign against China during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

The important point here is that irrespective of the ideology that underpins a particular regime — be it authoritarian or liberal — maintaining security over its domain is a chief concern for any state. China’s growing assertiveness within Asia is also to be understood within regional security complex theory, which posits that states in a given region have closely linked national security concerns that cannot be so easily separated. 

China’s security interests are interlinked and in some instances even aligned with its neighbors. For example, China and its counterparts in Southeast Asia will have to confront piracy and other transnational threats that require security cooperation among that region’s nations. Security interdependence is an inevitable feature of international relations and states in a particular region pursue their security interests within regionally based clusters. 

As the world shifts to multipolarity, revisionist great powers like China or Russia will pursue foreign policies that could antagonize their smaller neighbors, challenge Washington, and disrupt the liberal international order underwritten by the U.S. and its allies. Nevertheless, such realpolitiking has long been a hallmark of great power statecraft: there is nothing uniquely evil or irrational about it. The North Atlantic would therefore benefit from heeding history and abandoning a moralistic framing which ignores realism and prudence.

Under the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. itself used conquest and territorial aggrandizement to establish itself as a great power throughout the 19th century. In so doing, it established itself as a regional—or rather continental— hegemon, pushing out foreign competitors and ensuring that no great power could ever interfere in or set up a military presence around America’s periphery. North Atlantic decision-makers must recognize that as China develops economically, it will also strengthen militarily. As a result, it will come to assert itself in its historical area of dominance like countless other civilizational states have done so in the past. 

To be sure, the US has legitimate grievances with China regarding its trade practices and acts of espionage committed by Chinese nationals within its shores. These are matters that will require uncomfortable conversations and bold reforms to address. That said, using the Atlanticist foreign policy formula of megaphone diplomacy, moralistic rhetoric, and coercive sanctions that ignore the redlines of rivals and spurn compromise — a model that has failed repeatedly in the Middle East and elsewhere — against a rising China is to court escalation and unleash potentially catastrophic kinetic conflict. This approach failed against Russia. It will fail even more against China. 

Hard-nosed realism, bereft of overly ideological presumptions, is the most optimal course in addressing the China question. A prudent approach, centered around strategic empathy and clever diplomacy, should be the ultimate North Star in navigating the uncharted waters of great power competition in the 21st century.

José Niño is a freelance writer and contributor to Mises Institute. He holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations from Universidad de Chile and a B.A. in Government and History from the University of Texas at Austin.

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