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In the Indo-Pacific, Canada Has Core Interests but Weak Clout

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This commentary is published as part of IPD’s project Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order in collaboration with Policy Options magazine from the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Canada is a Pacific nation by geography, demography and history. Politics and colonial history have anchored Canada in the Atlantic, but the forging of a dominion from “sea-to-sea-to-sea” made the Pacific destiny. Unfortunately, the gaze has continued to look east, and the look west often appears apprehensive, over the shoulder, a look behind.

For a time, the gaze has turned with hope toward China trusting in Canada’s benign influence and hoping that Asian giant would stimulate this country’s awakening as a Pacific nation.

Engagement with India and South Asia is part of the legacy of the British Commonwealth and was for a long time shorn of material or security interests. As far back as the Second World War, Canada made the decision to focus on the European theatre and not engage in the Pacific against the Japanese except for an ill-fated and tragic role in the defence of Hong Kong urged on Canada by Britain.

Our post-war role in NATO continues this trend. Our engagement in Korea is reluctant and in Vietnam it is negative. Canada’s weak presence in Asia diminishes its global clout and marginalizes the importance to its senior ally, the U.S., for whom security in the region is its foremost preoccupation.

Significantly, Canada seems to pay attention to security issues in the Pacific in alignment with its Atlantic allies rather than standing on its own diplomatic policies. This trend continues to this day.

The shock of the two Michaels affair alerted Canadians to China’s emergence as a disruptive great power. In the aftermath, Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy was designed to support our senior ally, cobble together a network that might mitigate China’s  influence regionally and globally. The goal is to integrate a global strategy interested in upholding a liberal rules-based order where democracies are protected and the rule of law is safeguarded.

The Indo-Pacific strategy sits uneasily on two pillars that support Canadian allies in the region with a commitment to demonstrate this country’s relevance to Asian nations on the periphery of China, particularly the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Significantly, Canada seems to pay attention to security issues in the Pacific in alignment with its Atlantic allies rather than standing on its own diplomatic policies. This trend continues to this day.

At the same time, Canada recognizes but has not committed to ASEAN’s self-declared “centrality” in the region. Canada has also not committed to beefing up a security role in the western Pacific in a way that would substantially enhance the military effectiveness of the U.S. and its allies in the region.

Coincidentally, no significant inroads have been made in repairing wobbly relations with India, while relations with China remain in a deep freeze.

In short, the strategy is not designed to increase leverage within the region, nor in relations with the United States. It is minimally designed to reassure allies that Canada is on board while signalling to other Asian nations that it wishes to stay in contact.

The problem with this stance is that it does little to secure the interests of Asian nations not formally aligned with either the U.S. or China.

To those wary of China’s growing might, Canada provides little weight to counteract that power.  To those who wish to hedge while securing the benefits of Chinese trade and investment, Canada’s threadbare relationship with China makes for an uncertain partnership at best and at worst irrelevant to their most immediate concerns.

Hyphenated Canadians from the Indo-Pacific do not appear to hold a single coherent view of the region and Canada’s role there. Some prioritize human rights and some prioritize close relations with their ancestral homelands. Some wish to promote democracy and the rule of law, and some wish to play a role in fostering closer economic relations.

Canadian governments wish to engage multicultural communities in supporting regional outreach partly to shore up electoral support for the ruling party but there is no consensus between communities or even within these communities about what is the best role for Canada to play.

Concerns about China’s strategic goals and dissent from liberal norms and values is at the core of the Indo-Pacific strategy. However, Canada’s diplomatic estrangement from Beijing is an outlier among G7 nations and exceeds even that of deterrence-conscious U.S. allies in the region like Australia, South Korea and Japan.

The Indo-Pacific strategy is not designed to increase leverage within the region, nor in relations with the United States. It is minimally designed to reassure allies that Canada is on board while signalling to other Asian nations that it wishes to stay in contact.

Canada stands alone in the absence of ministerial or high-level diplomatic encounters. In late August, the  official opposition asked Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault to not attend a meeting at the end of the month with the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development.

Yet any discussions on climate change cannot happen without engaging the world’s largest carbon emitter and leader in deploying green technology – China. (And Guilbeault attended the meeting.) Even amidst of suspicions of Chinese state interference in Canada’s electoral process, a desire to exact retribution from China hobbles Canadian global diplomacy, let alone relations within the region.

Canadian interests require a businesslike relationship with China even as concerns build over human-rights issues. Shunning China undermines credibility in the region and diminishes Canada’s global stature.

A mature approach to China must acknowledge key differences while recognizing areas of interest that are shared. Meeting the Chinese state on commonalities without criticism will advance the cause.

Pursuing Canadian interests also requires investment in strategic niches so contributions can be made to the deterrence objectives of our global and regional allies. Deterrence means countering Chinese efforts to unilaterally change the status quo over Taiwan and the South China Sea with credible force.

If Canada is not prepared to invest more heavily in its defence contributions to the western Pacific, it needs to find ways in which its contribution will be distinct and noticed. This does not stand in contradiction to the need to retain a working relationship with Beijing. U.S. allies in the region maintain active diplomatic outreach and healthy trade and investment flows with China. Canada should work with regional allies on best deploying its comparative advantage.

Canadian interests require a businesslike relationship with China even as concerns build over human-rights issues. Shunning China undermines credibility in the region and diminishes Canada’s global stature.

Agriculture, energy and strategic minerals along with the technologies to produce them are a strength. Indeed, despite a desire for “de-risking” and “friend-shoring,” estrangement from Asian value chains, all of which run through China, constitutes a threat to Canada’s economic future. Managing risks means working together with regional allies to build resilience into vital supply chains.

America’s regional allies do not shun China. For most, China is their number one trading partner and all are careful to balance deterrence with diplomatic outreach. That outreach has been absent for Canada since 2018. New Zealand has avoided adopting a strong deterrence approach but has also found a niche as a key American ally in mitigating Chinese influence in the Pacific island nations.

Canada needs to find a niche where it is both an effective ally and a relevant player. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade bloc has not been utilized to any significant advantage, even at a time when the U.S. is unwilling or unable to forge new multilateral trade deals. In the meantime, China has forged ahead with its own trade bloc – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The prospect of a bilateral free trade deal with India remains a distant and forlorn hope for Canada. To access electric-vehicle value chains and to preserve the domestic auto industry, improvements must be made because most of these chains run through Asia, including China. Given that Mexico is now the United States’ largest trade partner, putting Canada in second place, the list of trading partners is shrinking – not expanding.

Indeed, despite a desire for “de-risking” and “friend-shoring,” estrangement from Asian value chains, all of which run through China, constitutes a threat to Canada’s economic future. Managing risks means working together with regional allies to build resilience into vital supply chains.

The focus on a partnership with the Republic of Korea is welcome. Deepening that partnership to exercise middle-power diplomacy regionally and exploring a global partnership may be wise. However, there must be a recognition of a deep left-right divide in South Korea’s politics that makes it unwise to tether Canadian policy to any administration.

The Philippines is another country that in recent years has become one of the top sources of immigration and labour to Canada. It is also a country with entrenched problems of governance. Assistance in improving that situation will go some way toward enhancing regional security as well as diluting China’s influence.

An ASEAN-sponsored means of sharing information with regional players including those regional allies makes sense. Paying close attention to ASEAN centrality is a way to consult regionally without appearing to participate in a containment strategy that is China’s nightmare and unwelcome in ASEAN. ASEAN’s diplomatic infrastructure can be used to mitigate and ideally set aside the notion that the Indo-Pacific strategy is uniquely designed to satisfy Washington.

Even with China in the grip of self-inflicted stagnation, the Asian economies remain a core centre of present and future economic growth. Prudence and self-interest dictate that Canada should remain engaged and face the Pacific with the firm assurance that this is its future.

There must be a way to reshape relations beyond traditional commitments anchored in the Atlantic. In many ways this country’s relationship with the Indo-Pacific is a microcosm of today’s multiplex world. Canada’s strategic outlook should be shaped accordingly.

Written By:
Jeremy Paltiel
Jeremy Paltiel is professor emeritus of political science specializing in government and foreign policies of Asia at Carleton University and a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.
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