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On Climate Security in the Indo-Pacific, Canada Missed an Opportunity To Partner With the Pacific Islands

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By virtue of its geography, the Pacific Islands have a shared set of vulnerabilities to the threats posed by climate change. With the possibility of these Islands being fully submerged or rendered uninhabitable, Pacific Islanders are reaching out to countries like the United States, China, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand for assistance in providing funding, partnerships and support to make the Islands more climate resilient and responsive in preserving their heritage.

In developing its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), Canada missed an opportunity to make explicit commitments to promote its economic, technological, and scientific sectors to advance more soft power dialogues with Pacific Island countries (PICs) on climate security. Only mentioned three times, with a specific mention of Fiji as a frontrunner for receiving a Canadian mission, the exclusion of PICs in the IPS’s priority to build a sustainable and greener future demonstrates a shortsightedness in Canada’s approach to distinguish itself as a more attractive partner for regional engagement.

With increasing sea level rise, coastal inundation, drought, coral bleaching, as well as more frequent and destructive tropical storms, the threat posed by climate change puts at risk the human security and civilizational continuity — specifically the preservation of the various cultures, languages, and heritage — of PICs. Although conventional notions of security and defence are hot topics for engaging PICs, the varying Island countries have vocally demonstrated the need for greater climate security partnerships to address island-specific threats posed by climate change, such as the asylum status of climate refugees, easier access to climate-related grant funding and climate-resilient infrastructure.

For Ottawa, the calls by PICs for more partnerships on climate security should have been more heavily pursued, given Canada’s underlying cultural, linguistic, and political similarities with PICs. Moreover, given Prime Minister Trudeau’s staunch climate security interests, Canada should have demonstrated a keenness to enhance its ability to make more long-lasting connections with PICs by capitalizing on how a “Canadian approach” to combat climate change can make Ottawa a more attractive and value-added partner in generating island-specific assistance programs to improve the climate resilience and adaptability of PICs.

A “Canadian approach” would entail capitalizing on the cultural similarities that Canada’s Indigenous and PICs Aboriginal populations have for protecting community and environmental values and heritage. In tailoring funding for PICs, Ottawa can emulate the Indigenous Community-Based Climate Monitoring Program, which supports the design, implementation, or expansion of community-based climate monitoring projects through Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Western science. To incorporate a Pacific perspective, Ottawa should involve its technological sector to help advance new methods of designing inexpensive and environmentally friendly designs to preserve an Island’s culture, tradition, and practices without jeopardizing reductions in an Island’s emission targets.

In developing its Indo-Pacific Strategy, Canada missed an opportunity to make explicit commitments to promote its economic, technological, and scientific sectors to advance more soft power dialogues with Pacific Island countries on climate security.

With Canada setting its industrial base for battery manufacturing and electric vehicles, Ottawa is also pursuing small electric fishing fleets. As a seafaring culture, PICs would benefit considerably from zero-emitting maritime assets for traditional and practical purposes. A further area where Ottawa can assist PICs to preserve their culture is by investing in immersive virtual reality (VR) technology as a way of conserving the uniqueness of an Island for future generations. On a geopolitical level, and as demonstrated by the Future Now initiative by Tuvalu, there are growing calls for PICs to digitally incorporate geographical boundaries to retain their rights to their exclusive economic zones, traditional fishing, and mining rights – resources that are worth billions of dollars. Partnering with PICs on this important matter should serve Canada’s regional interests for climate security but also reinforce Ottawa’s determination to sustain an international rules-based order.

The second feature of the “Canadian approach” should utilize common linguistic ties, as English and French are the first or second languages in PICs. For Ottawa, this can provide an opportunity to use its national identity as a bilingual country to moderate and engage in more niche person-to-person dialogues around climate change. By incorporating English and French academic, scientific, and public policy exchanges on climate change, Canada and PICs can generate better data and knowledge transfers to support climate adaptation and mitigation projects that foster longer-term relations and understandings. Eventually, common ground should be achieved to initiate larger state-to-state dialogues, which would see the Pacific Islands Forum closely working with Canada on critical climate-sensitive areas like renewable energy, marine conservation, sustainable fisheries, and adherence to international climate agreements.

A third dimension of the “Canadian approach” that needs to be circulated among PICs is the political stock Ottawa has with Commonwealth allies like Australia and New Zealand. With both countries focusing on managing climate security threats and having traditionally been a key partner for PICs, Ottawa can use its Commonwealth connections to better integrate its climate security platforms and climate finance resources with Canberra and Wellington to assist PICs in developing and designing climate projects that are specific to the needs of varying Islands.

In approaching the US’s climate assistance programs, Canada should propose a strategy that would see Ottawa and Washington jointly use the continent’s resources — particularly their industrial, natural resources, and technological sectors — in organizing climate security programs for PICs. In both instances, Ottawa should complement the US, Australia, and New Zealand climate security initiatives by leveraging and bridging its close people-to-people ties to connect PICs with investors and innovators in the Commonwealth and North America.

To showcase the “Canadian approach,” Ottawa must first establish a sincere partnership by stepping up its diplomatic presence by launching multiple Canadian High Commissions in a number of PICs that ideally maximize Canadian diplomatic clout as well as make Canada more readily seen by local Islanders. Currently, the High Commissioner for Canada in Australia is accredited to diplomatic postings for Nauru, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. With extensive informal diplomatic engagement, Canada lacks Track I channels to connect the PICs politicians and diplomats with their Canadian counterparts.

If the Prime Minister is serious about engaging the region and making Canada an attractive partner, then Ottawa must advance and accomplish value-added programs in the Indo-Pacific to promote Canada as a facilitator — projecting Ottawa to the forefront of regional matters.

The “Canadian approach” must also project Ottawa’s strength in designing and providing climate-related funding. Recently, Ottawa announced a further $450 million in funding to the UN’s Green Climate Fund and has previously pledged $2.65 billion in climate finance through its Feminist International Assistance Policy. However, due to red tape, many PICs lack the human resources to advance their application, are forced to spend on external factors — like outside consultants and accreditation fees — and cannot take on debt capital. With such a limited prospect for funding, most climate-related grants PICs receive are directed toward preparation and capacity development projects.

As a result of these short-term climate-related grants and loans, PICs cannot generate lasting climate-resilient infrastructure and innovative projects that can secure and protect vitally important sectors and industries many Pacific Islanders depend on for a living. To work around these challenges, Ottawa needs to bring about more specific climate-related funding for PICs that require immediate assistance to make critical infrastructure more climate-resilient. By redirecting financial resources to island-specific interests like critical infrastructure, Ottawa can reassure PICs that they will have the means to carry out daily social and economic activities while also assisting PICs in attracting more private firms to invest in similar climate-resilient projects.

Greater soft power engagement with PICs can illustrate to the rest of the Indo-Pacific how Canada is changing its foreign policy to support, lead and accomplish major geopolitical priorities. Moreover, by assisting in bringing about a greener and sustainable region, Ottawa can distinguish itself as a prominent partner for Indo-Pacific investors and innovators who yearn for more cooperation and collaboration on climate security. If the Prime Minister is serious about engaging the region and making Canada an attractive partner, then Ottawa must advance and accomplish value-added programs in the Indo-Pacific to promote Canada as a facilitator — projecting Ottawa to the forefront of regional matters.

Written By:
Andrew Erskine
Andrew Erskine is a Young Fellow with the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and a Canada-Asia Young Professional Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Foundation of 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.  


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