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Friday / January 27
HomeBlogJohnsen Romero in The Hill Times: Armed With a Strategy, is Canada Talking With or Talking Past Asia?

Johnsen Romero in The Hill Times: Armed With a Strategy, is Canada Talking With or Talking Past Asia?

Image credit: Office of the Prime Minister

By Johnsen Romero

The following piece was originally published by The Hill Times.

On the heels of Ottawa’s newly minted Indo-Pacific Strategy, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly took to Europe as the first place to present Canada’s redefined approach to Asia. Attending a late-November NATO summit in Bucharest, Joly shared Canada’s plans to deploy frigates through the Taiwan Strait, raise defence spending, and “invest in deterrence.” The degree to which the views of Asian capitals had any influence on the security dimensions of Ottawa’s Indo-Pacific rethink, however, is less clear.

Given the purpose of the strategy is to establish Canada’s commitment to engaging the region, the choice to present it to transatlantic allies on the other side of the globe appears counterintuitive. One can attribute the unfortunate timing to the plan’s much-delayed release, but the symbolism of Joly holding consultations over the Indo-Pacific in a room devoid of anyone from the neighbourhood is no less glaring.

That Asia has loudly—and repeatedly—voiced its perspectives on how external partners should engage the region should warrant greater attention in Ottawa. If the strategy is to be successful, Canada’s diplomats would do well to listen to what Asia is saying and not just NATO ministers that have agreed on “the systemic challenges posed by the [People’s Republic of China] to Euro-Atlantic security.”

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi frankly told the United Nations General Assembly what Jakarta thinks of a bloc-based approach towards the region in a recent address. Remarking on “minilateral groupings” that have acted “as a tool for containment and alienation,” she condemned efforts to circumvent the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), saying “we refuse to be a pawn in a new Cold War,” and championing the group’s paradigm of collaborating with all states. Much appears to be lost in translation between Indonesian rhetoric and Canada’s promise of an Indo-Pacific strategy that “deeply respects the centrality of ASEAN in the region.”

To be clear, Ottawa’s strategy says many of the right things, including commitments to increase participation in ASEAN fora, deepen defence co-operation and training initiatives with Southeast Asia’s armed forces, and align itself with ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. The problem lies in how echoing “ASEAN centrality” is not the same as understanding what it means, let alone addressing the core concerns that Asia is attempting to convey.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh warned against “the formation of regional alliances to overthrow or destroy the interests of others.” On the same day, his Vietnamese counterpart, General Phan Văn Giang, reiterated that Hanoi would “not join any military alliances [or] side with one country against another.” Hours earlier, Indonesia’s Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto underscored his country’s “own Asian way” of pursuing understanding and communication, adding that “to respect the interests of all our neighbours and of all the big powers in this region is essential.”

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended ASEAN’s annual summit as a special guest of host Cambodia last month, he signed off on a joint statement that affirmed ASEAN-led mechanisms as the primary setting for security dialogue, confidence-building, and preventive diplomacy. Southeast Asian leaders summed up the importance of this point beyond a mere slogan in their own Indo-Pacific declaration. It called on “external partners to support and undertake substantive, practical and tangible co-operation” with ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, and again through the organization’s existing frameworks.

Canada’s actions in the region to demonstrate its security commitments in concert with the “likeminded,” however, appear to risk ignoring what Asian capitals actually think of them. Far from having its fears of insecurity alleviated, Southeast Asia has at times reacted swiftly to criticize the policy steps of external partners for contributing to regional tensions.

When United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi undertook a trip to Taiwan, ASEAN rushed to produce a joint statement as Chinese drills were underway that called for maximal restraint and “refrain from provocative action.” The group’s opinion on which parties bore responsibility was not one-sided. The Philippines’ national security adviser Clarita Carlos bluntly observed that it was Pelosi’s visit that would “ratchet up the temperature in the region.”

Similar gaps in perception have followed the emergence of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) and AUKUS, the trilateral pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. Commenting on both, Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen noted that “despite the assurance that it is not focused on any one country, I think the more initiated will conclude otherwise that it is.” On the latter, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad accused Australia of “escalating the threat” of war and contradicting ASEAN’s preference to resolve issues through negotiation, adding that partners continue to lobby the region to confront Beijing. In the most recent gathering of the Trilateral Commission’s Asia-Pacific group, incoming director Masahisa Ikeda described members’ beliefs that “U.S. policy toward Asia, especially toward China, has been narrow-minded” and that there are demands to acknowledge Asian points of view.

An approach to security challenges in Asia that does not bother to engage with the regional institutions that are purposed with dealing with them positions Canada and its like-minded as partners in bad faith. Employing the rhetoric of “ASEAN centrality” is insufficient. That Canada says its strategy is “answering the call from regional partners for deeper engagement” when its actions presuppose what those calls are—and presuppose them incorrectly—will not give Asia reason to treat Ottawa seriously.

If Canada is genuine about being a force for peace and security in the Indo-Pacific, it should start with being attuned to what its governments are saying. Diplomatic channels and dialogue mechanisms to avert regional escalation already exist, but Ottawa needs to use them, not merely pay them lip service. Failing to do so will not only justify why Asia’s capitals are not asking for “more Canada,” but why they might instead ask for less.

Johnsen Romero is a Research Associate at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and was a Yenching Scholar at Peking University. He has previously served as a policy analyst for Global Affairs Canada.

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