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Canadian Foreign Policy Bulletin: Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

Image credit: Mary Ng

The following excerpt is from IPD’s biweekly Canadian Foreign Policy Bulletin. Read more by subscribing below.

Joly unveils Canada’s long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy

In a Vancouver press conference alongside trade minister Mary Ng, international development minister Harjit Sajjan, public safety minister Marco Mendicino, and fisheries minister Joyce Murray, foreign affairs minister Mélanie Joly announced Canada’s “generational” strategy for the Indo-Pacific.

Five pillars — The lengthy plan outlines ‘interconnected strategic objectives’ that frame engagement over the next decade:

  • These include peace and security, trade and supply chain resiliency, people-to-people ties, green and sustainable development, and a more proactive diplomatic profile and footprint in the region.
  • In a backgrounder on the strategy’s financial commitments, Ottawa promised $2.3 billion in largely new financing to fund the plan’s initiatives until 2027, when a review will “return with an update that will cover initiatives and resources for years 2027-2032.”
  • The most significant line items in the strategy’s budget include $492.9 million for the Canadian Armed Forces’ presence in the region as well as $750 million for FinDev Canada to support “high-quality” infrastructure in line with the G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.
  • On economic engagement, the strategy placed an emphasis on opening Southeast Asian markets, diversifying supply chains, achieving an Early Progress Trade Agreement with India as a “critical partner,” and reinvigorating “Team Canada” trade missions deployed to the region.
  • Diplomatically, the plan committed to appoint a special envoy to the Indo-Pacific, establish a new post to liaise with the U.S. in Hawaii, implement the Strategic Partnership with ASEAN, and add China analysts to missions at the UN, EU, and NATO.
Most of the Indo-Pacific strategies of our allies do not include China. I decided to do so in the strategy, because you can't talk about the Indo-Pacific without talking about China.
Mélanie Joly, Minister of Foreign Affairs

A sharper China policy — Reportedly unmentioned in past drafts, the final document settles on labelling Bejing a “disruptive global power”:

  • Critiquing China for seeking “a more permissive environment for interests and values that increasingly depart from ours,” the strategy highlighted the South China Sea, coercion, and more, vowing to “work closely with its partners to face the complex realities of China’s global impact.”
  • The plan noted Canada “must remain in dialogue with those with whom we do not see eye-to-eye,” spelling out climate change and nuclear proliferation as collective concerns while recognizing that “China’s economy offers significant opportunities for Canadian exporters.”
  • Interviewed by La Presse, Joly said that “most of the Indo-Pacific strategies of our allies do not include China,” saying she “decided to do so in the strategy, because you can’t talk about the Indo-Pacific without talking about China.”
  • She added that she has spoken of Canada’s “re-engagement framework” with Beijing in her meetings with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, stating “he doesn’t necessarily agree, but I told him that at least it’s transparent.”

Ministers defend plans — Cabinet members have taken to the media circuit to elaborate on the announced initiatives, tone, and timelines:

  • Joly underlined one orientation of the strategy to CBC, saying “we’re introducing this new concept which is the Northern Pacific” that is about “creating a stronger relationship with Japan and Korea” in a manner that she compared to NATO and “investing in more military assets.”
  • Minister Anand echoed these shifts in a press conference, noting funds for a new frigate to augment annual naval deployments to the region, capacity-building in Southeast Asia, as well as intelligence capabilities to “enable close collaboration with our Five Eyes and regional partners.” 
  • Speaking to CTV on China, Joly stated that “we are calling a spade a spade” and reiterated that “we will compete with China when we ought and we will cooperate with them when we must” and that “the idea is to make sure the frame is clear.”
For this strategy to be taken seriously, there has to be indication that they will outlast changes in government.
Carlo Dade, Director, Trade & Investment Centre, Canada West Foundation

Economic stakeholders react — The business community was largely optimistic about the strategy’s promises and understandings but sought specifics:

  • Carlo Dade, Director of the Trade & Investment Centre at the Canada West Foundation, cautioned that “for this strategy to be taken seriously, there has to be indication that they will outlast changes in government” and that Ottawa’s reputation is that is “we show up and disappear.”
  • Goldy Hyder, President of the Business Council of Canada, said that in China, “business is in the business of managing risks” and that “we are glad that nobody said, ‘Don’t do businesses in an x, y or z country.’ I think that would have been counterproductive and harmful.”
  • Separately, Hyder called for “an express commitment by the government to provide secure supplies of Canadian LNG to our allies in the region along with specific details of how it will expedite the approval of Pacific-coast energy export infrastructure” given energy security concerns.
  • Meredith Lilly, a former trade adviser to Stephen Harper, observed that there was “no mention of friendshoring” and that “if anything, the strategy offers a rebuke, proposing greater diversification and doubling down on adherence to rules as resilient responses to protectionism.”
This is the most substantive strategic document on foreign policy that we've seen from any Canadian government for a long time.
Roland Paris, former Senior Adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

What commentators think — Scholars both welcomed the announcement and noted the room to be more regionally sensitive as the U.S. and China differed:

  • Roland Paris, a former senior advisor to Justin Trudeau, termed it “the most substantive strategic document on foreign policy that we’ve seen from any Canadian government for a long time” but asked for government “reporting on whether it’s meeting specific targets.”
  • Shaun Narine, a professor at St. Thomas University, suggested it appears to be “going in with our presumptions about what the regional state should be, about what it is that we expect of them” and that “we’re not listening to what they want. We’re not actually considering what their interests are.”
  • Stéphanie Martel, a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation, noted Ottawa’s language on its Strategic Partnership with ASEAN was at times inconsistent with what ASEAN was referencing, saying “we should also invest in improving our understanding of how ASEAN works.”
  • U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen was quick to issue a statement, calling Ottawa “one of the United States’s most important friends and allies, to advance our countries’ shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific region.”
  • Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the strategy was “dominated by ideological bias,” noting past Canadian remarks on how it “would like to improve and grow relations” but that it “needs to honor its words, show sincerity and goodwill, [and] seek common ground while reserving differences.”
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