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Making the Indo-Pacific a Priority: Ottawa Must Show Canadians Its Significance

Image credit: Harjit Sajjan and Mélanie Joly

By Andrew Erskine

In November of 2022, Canada finally published its long-awaited Indo-Pacific Strategy. In it, Ottawa laid out its ambitions to promote peace, resilience, and security; expand trade, investment, and supply chain resilience; invest in and connect people; build a sustainable and green future; and make Canada an active and engaged partner in the Indo-Pacific. The strategy seeks to readdress Canada’s approach to China—particularly towards protecting Canadian intellectual property and research while also countering foreign interference—and expand its diplomatic footing in a region that is growingly the global economic engine of the emerging multipolar order. 

However, to make the Indo-Pacific Strategy prevalent among everyday Canadians, Ottawa needs to shape public opinion by better showcasing the relevance of the security and economic consequences emerging from the region. Specifically, Ottawa must demonstrate that our presence and investment in the Indo-Pacific serve our vital national interests, remarking the region’s indivisibility to the economic, civil, and security well-being of Canadians.  

However, with Canadian political parties cherry-picking geopolitical issues for short-term political gains, Ottawa’s Indo-Pacific Strategy can become a political macguffin, thereby losing its influence and relevance among Canadians. To ensure that the Indo-Pacific Strategy is embraced and supported nationwide, Ottawa must demonstrate the natural essence of Canada as a Pacific country that has stakes in the region’s security and economic architectures.

A first step would be to recognize Chinese hegemonic aspirations in the South China and East China Seas, particularly in aiming to undermine the economic rules-based system for maritime trade. Specifically, Ottawa must articulate to Canadians its views on how China seeks to install a Sinocentric order that would erode notions of autonomy and openness, fundamental features for free trade and free navigation. If allowed to flourish, a Pax Sinica would empower Beijing to set the regional rules around trade and security, exploit natural resources through economic coercion, assert exclusive fishing rights, and grant it de facto authority over maritime mobility in the region. For Ottawa, this would have considerable implications for its supply chain resiliency and economic diversification as the region will have two-thirds of the global middle class by 2030 and more than half by 2040, vital economic markets for a country where trade accounts for 60.9 percent of its GDP. 

A further step would be for Ottawa to deepen its presence on the Korean peninsula by demonstrating the peril of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation on Canadian security. Whether Canadians think of it or not, our security is directly tied to the Korean peninsula’s stability given our extra-regional and national security interests. 

Given our historical commitment as a signatory to the Korean Armistice Agreement, Canada remains an integral partner for the UN Command Military Armistice Commission which is tasked with supervising the ceasefire. In the event of the armistice unraveling from a North Korean attack, conventional or nuclear, Ottawa would be responsible for ensuring the safety of its military personnel and obliged to send additional equipment, armaments, and military personnel to assist in efforts to defend South Korean sovereignty and potentially Japan. What is more, Ottawa would be responsible for evacuating thousands of Canadian citizens who reside in South Korea and Japan for work and overseas education. 

Moreover, recent military developments including Pyongyang’s launch of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile—designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads and capable of reaching the continental United States—and the blazoning of a first-strike policy has significant implications for Canadian national security. Consequently, an erratic nuclear North Korea has calamitous consequences for the well-being of Canadians. 

Climate change is another issue that impacts Canadian interests. Although the Trudeau government observes climate change as a global threat, the latter also has major repercussions for the Indo-Pacific. Given Ottawa’s response to the floods in Pakistan last summer, there would be expectations domestically and among regional partners to provide humanitarian and economic assistance. To increase our cooperation to combat climate disasters through an Indo-Pacific lens, Ottawa needs to demonstrate the inadvisable effects that future floods, draughts, coastal erosion, and extreme weather will have on Canadian economic, security, and immigration interests.

One such area that Ottawa must consider is the effects of climate change on fish migration and the Indo-Pacific’s fishing industry. With the region projected to have 60 percent of the world’s population, Ottawa must prepare for more frequent illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in or near its exclusive economic zone due to the Indo-Pacific’s depleting fish stocks and the warming of northern waters. With China conducting IUUs in the South China Sea and off South America, it is not inconceivable to expect similar occurrences on Canada’s western and Arctic coasts.

To amplify its message to the public, Ottawa must do more than boast about these threats to Canadians in foreign or defence policy statements. To incorporate these national issues into the civilian psyche, Ottawa needs to engage in more soft-power diplomatic activity that can deepen our people-to-people ties to the region. In this area, Ottawa needs to undertake more state visits and extend more invitations for the same beyond traditional relationships with the US, Australia, Japan, and South Korea that, although indispensable for Ottawa, often restrict our regional awareness. 

To begin this process, Ottawa should reflect upon its evolving demographic of immigrants and first-generation Canadians from the Indo-Pacific—with one in five Canadians having roots in the region—including, but not limited to, South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh), the Philippines, and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia), as a way to showcase to Canadians that the region hosts a range of under-engaged relationships that must be pursued to amplify Canada’s presence in the region’s economic and security architectures. 

As far as formalizing diplomatic relations, state visits are the highest form of bilateral meetings between countries. It demonstrates to the participating countries’ domestic audiences that there are existing and shared interests that warrant greater governmental interactions for resiliency and prosperity. State visits also offer more avenues for people-to-people ties to grow as they can give rise to supplementary initiatives that promote opportunities for citizen engagement through business, tourism, and education programs. These can bridge cultural and public gaps in understanding the importance of how Canadians and Indo-Pacific communities share common security and economic interests. 

To accomplish this task, Ottawa should further reach out to the heads of state of Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, India, and the Philippines. Not only do these countries share Canada’s middle power interests, along with offering diplomatic avenues for Ottawa to expand its regional influence in security and economic architectures of the Indo Pacifc, but they also resonate with Canada’s diaspora communities from the region that will be crucial for expanding people-to-people ties.

To establish itself as a reliable partner and prioritize long-term investments in the Indo-Pacific while promoting an inclusive and prosperous regional order, Ottawa must clearly communicate to Canadians the connection between regional threats and opportunities and their daily lives. If Ottawa remains deterred and hesitant to project its vision for regional engagement onto Canadian public opinion, it will be unprepared, delayed, and unresponsive to the challenges emerging from the Indo-Pacific, yet again making Canada an outsider.

Andrew Erskine is a Young Fellow at IPD, a research analyst with the NATO Association of Canada, a researcher with the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers and the Editor in Chief at The New Global Order. 

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