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Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: Sailing in Troubled Waters

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This commentary is published as part of IPD’s project, European Security in a Shifting World Order: Debating Canada’s Role.

It has been a year since Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly announced Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), calling for a “generational Canadian response” in its repositioning towards Asia.  Long overdue and much anticipated in light of ongoing regional tensions and domestic political controversy, the IPS gained national and international attention. The months following witnessed a flurry of prime ministerial and ministerial visits to Asian capitals and meetings, increased tempo and profile for Canadian naval operations, and the expectations raised by the IPS $2.3 billion promised budget.

Not unexpectedly, the directions and feasibility of the IPS agenda have been scrutinized and critiqued, Ottawa’s shift towards Asia for some having raised questions as to whether the IPS would draw attention and resources away from Canada’s fundamental North American and Euro-Atlantic security priorities. However, any such concerns will likely be short-lived. With limited bandwidth at senior political and official levels, coupled with competition for fiscal and human resources, maintaining momentum for the IPS would have been challenging even under propitious circumstances.

With Ottawa preoccupied with the crises of other regions, the Indo-Pacific is in danger of slipping to the backburner. This is reinforced by Ottawa’s default stance of viewing Asia through a US and Euro-Atlantic lens.

With Ottawa preoccupied with the crises of other regions, the Indo-Pacific is in danger of slipping to the backburner. This is reinforced by Ottawa’s default stance of viewing Asia through a US and Euro-Atlantic lens – one that sees a world of confrontation of democracies vs authoritarians, strategic competition, and dependent on deterrence strategies. This lens, however, frustrates the goals and potential of the IPS, including Canada’s pursuit of an independent and relevant regional role. The latter, in accord with key ASEAN states, Japan and South Korea is premised on multilateral engagement and dialogue, rather than exclusion, as captured by Minister Joly’s recent call for “pragmatic diplomacy”.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy: Agenda and Aspirations

Compared to the majority of its partners, especially the United States, Canada came lately to transition from its previous “Asia Pacific” (emphasizing economic cooperation) to adopt an “Indo-Pacific” (emphasizing security) perspective. Representing a significant shift in both geographic scope and strategic mindset, advocates of the “Indo-Pacific” look to extend their horizon beyond East Asia and the Western Pacific to integrate the waters of the Indian Ocean and countries of South Asia, with India viewed as an emerging economic powerhouse and potential counterbalance to China. 

The IPS presents a multidimensional agenda, pledging attention to advancement of Canadian values – human rights, humanitarian assistance, advancement of women, international law and protection of a rules-based international order.  It addresses several goals: enhancement of economic growth through expanding trade and investment; restoration of Canada as an impactful contributor to peace, security, and regional stability; and promotion of a Canadian regional presence through people-to-people engagement and substantial investment in building infrastructure, sustainability and a “green future”.

The IPS, as expected, looks to economic gains through attractive growth areas in Asian economies, targeting Southeast Asia and particularly India, and strengthening relations with Japan and South Korea. Building upon the multilateral Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is key, to be complemented by the negotiation of other free trade agreements and possible membership in the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Trade and business promotion is facilitated through the profile appointment of a Canadian Indo-Pacific Trade Representative, setting up of a Trade Gateway in Southeast Asia, organizing of Team Canada trade missions, and cross-ministerial attention to securing supply chain resilience.

However, the IPS also focuses substantially on peace and security, which comes in response to domestic and regional criticism that Canada has been an absent and diminishing contributor on these files. Ottawa therefore looks to reassert its presence as a regional player.

The IPS addresses security on two fronts. Overall, regional, security-based engagement is to be enhanced by augmenting the Canadian navy’s forward presence, increasing contributions to military capacity building and training, and devoting more resources to addressing cyber, AI, and space-based threats – these to be accomplished in cooperation with regional actors and regional institutions, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Five Eyes network.

Specifically, and independently, considerable attention is focused on China – this separate section of the IPS apparently a late appendage and in lieu of Ottawa’s producing a separate China strategy. Here the tone is quite different, indeed confrontational. China is called out as an “increasingly disruptive state”, citing its disregard for norms and international law, coercive diplomacy, non-market trade practices, and aggressive actions and claims towards regional states.

Canada is an outlier among its partners in not moving with incremental steps towards compartmentalizing and engaging with China – in contrast with Australia and the United States.

Accordingly, the IPS sets out a catalogue of domestic, bilateral, regional and multilevel strategies to address potential Chinese actions. This is juxtaposed with the acknowledgement that “China’s size and influence make cooperation necessary”, pointing out the need for collaboration with Beijing on global issues including climate change, environmental degradation and pandemics.  But, once stated, the IPS ignores China throughout the bulk of its agenda, referencing no specific policy steps to pursue collaboration with China on bilateral and multilateral initiatives, including through trade. Canada is an outlier among its partners in not moving with incremental steps towards compartmentalizing and engaging with China – in contrast with Australia and the United States.

In the immediate aftermath of the IPS announcement, the bulk of attention has been devoted to security matters, highlighted by deployment of an additional, third frigate to the region and the stepped-up participation of Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) vessels in bilateral and multilateral exercises.  Strategic dialogues have been held with the US, India, South Korea and Australia, and the relationship with ASEAN upgraded to Strategic Partnership. Canadian-Chinese encounters have occurred during Canadian navy transits through the Taiwan Strait and Chinese harassment of Canadian vessels and helicopters on patrol operations in the East China Sea.

The IPS in Larger Context

The IPS needs to be viewed within the larger framework of Canada’s efforts to define its role and interests in today’s complex and international environment. With the centre of gravity of the global economy and strategic challenges shifting towards Asia, policies and principles advanced in the IPS have significant implications for Canada’s relations beyond the Indo-Pacific. To appreciate the challenges and opportunities involved, Ottawa needs to reorient and expand its vision seen traditionally through a Euro-Atlantic lens. Accordingly, the IPS struggles with the traditional dilemmas that have prevailed in Canadian foreign policy, balancing confrontation and cooperation, and adopting alignment as a partner with allies in contrast to pursuing an independent role as a middle power promoting cooperative security. 

Regional states tend to see Canada as a policy follower of the United States and its deterrence-committed allies, in essence lacking an independent voice and regional strategy.

The IPS has been characterized as “sitt[ing] uneasily on [these] two pillars”, one of which, in essence, advances a deterrence agenda aligned with the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, centered on policies designed to constrain the rise of China, within the broader context of a values-based confrontation of democracies versus autocracies. Although not invited to the recently established minilateral associations of regional democracies, the Quad and AUKUS, Ottawa has said it is “highly interested” in joining the intelligence and technical sharing, non-nuclear components of the latter. Ottawa’s reluctance to engage China is reinforced by antipathy towards its hostage diplomacy, coercive economic sanctions and alleged interference in Canadian domestic affairs. Minister Joly’s omission of reference to China in her aforementioned foreign policy address is further confirmation of this attitude.

This hawkish stance places Canada out of synch with many Asian states, especially Southeast Asian states, who, while wary of China’s intentions, cannot afford a break with their largest trading partner and increasingly dominant regional power. Instead, they look to hedging strategies to avoid taking firm positions with any single great power.  They view security as advanced through dialogue, engagement rather than isolation, inclusion rather than exclusion, and consensus-building in multilateral institutions. Critics view Canada’s alignment with US Indo-Pacific policies as detrimental to its national interests and contrary to the overall effort of the IPS to establish a firmer regional footing. By positioning itself in this way, regional states tend to see Canada as a policy follower of the United States and its deterrence-committed allies, in essence lacking an independent voice and regional strategy.

That said, the IPS also seeks to advance security through cooperation – namely through the inclusion of relevant parties, dialogue, and consensus building in multilateral institutions. This view is prominently represented in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and realized through practices characterized as the ASEAN way. By acknowledging the centrality of ASEAN, the IPS commits to respecting its principles and to increasing and upgrading Canada’s engagement in inclusive, multilateral regional fora. The IPS advocates programs addressing non-traditional concerns, including humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, increasing assistance for feminist programs, and promotion of good governance. Peace and security are enhanced by attention to increasing the wellbeing of Asian peoples. The IPS presents the challenge of sustaining a balance between the confrontational and cooperative, devising policies that see Canada as an effective ally, but at the same time articulating a distinctive, relevant regional role.

The IPS: Bandwidth and Sustainability

With the above in mind, there remain questions concerning implementation and sustainability of the IPS.

Arguably, the most consequential and impactful results of the IPS will derive from its delivering on the promises of its people-to-people, development, environmental, humanitarian and governance agenda. One looks for these to be cemented as the priorities of the Canadian government over the five-year life of the IPS. Their implementation will face serious challenges, which must be addressed through careful, advance planning. Significant funding has been set aside, sufficient to launch, but in need of increase if programs are to be continued. Locating and mobilizing the required, expert human resources, and capable private and public actors in Canada and the region will be difficult. Programs will be spread across ministries and involve complex engagement with state and non-state actors. They will yield results over extended periods of time that will be difficult to measure.

The announcement of the IPS also provided no details of responsibility for their management and accountability, perhaps leaving these to the recently appointed Special Envoy for the Indo-Pacific. If left to develop without clearly established oversight, the IPS runs the risk of diffusing its focus and becoming a target of recurring, incremental budget cutting. To be noted, the 5-year horizon of the IPS will be punctuated by a midstream federal election, raising the prospect of alteration – even abandonment – given the potentially different priorities of a new government. 

If left to develop without clearly established oversight, the IPS runs the risk of diffusing its focus and becoming a target of recurring, incremental budget cutting.

Provision of adequate programmatic funding remains a chronic problem for Canadian governments. The $2.3b budget of the IPS, while possibly the single largest commitment to a foreign policy agenda, must be put into the context of competing demands for funding. Already the RCN questions its ability to fulfill its missions. Major defence procurement costs and NORAD and NATO security commitments loom. Canadian aid to Ukraine has topped $9.5b to date with more to follow; demands arising from the Middle East will burgeon. To prevent its budget being reduced and resources reallocated, it is critical that Asia and the Indo-Pacific not be allowed to slip to a backburner. 

Ottawa’s transient attention to the Asia-Pacific in past decades has created the problems that the IPS seeks to address. The IPS’ sustainability is at issue in terms of the difficulty of maintaining senior leadership attention at today’s critical juncture. The concerns of Canadian citizens and Canadian diaspora communities preoccupy political leaders and overwhelm government capacities. Canada’s IPS has run aground with both India and China – the two Asian major powers at its core, tensions recently having peaked over allegations of Indian government involvement the killing of a Canadian citizen, a Sikh activist, in Vancouver. Relations with China remain in stasis.

The downturns in Ottawa’s relations with Beijing and New Delhi reveal how the bandwidth of senior political figures and government officials is quickly exhausted in multiple crisis situations – this particularly so in Canada, operating understaffed and under-resourced. The larger policy consequences of this overload are a narrowing of attention, a fallback on established policies, a lack of innovation, and pervasive risk aversion. It therefore leads, by default, to viewing policy choices through a US-focused, Euro-Atlantic lens, counterproductive to advancement of Canadian long-term interests.

The larger policy consequences of this overload are a narrowing of attention, a fallback on established policies, a lack of innovation, and pervasive risk aversion. It therefore leads, by default, to viewing policy choices through a US-focused, Euro-Atlantic lens, counterproductive to advancement of Canadian long-term interests.

The IPS should be appreciated as a notable benchmark in Canada’s dealings with today’s multiplex, complex world. It has the potential to make a significance difference, advancing Canada’s engagement throughout the emerging Indo-Pacific for the mutual benefit of Canadians and their Asian counterparts. However, doing so requires focusing on “actional outcomes over strategic ideologies,” developing programs that relate to the priorities of Indo-Pacific governments and populations, and pursuing strategies that strike a balance between confrontation and cooperation. The IPS provides the necessary whole of government blueprint. Its realization will depend on the consistent attention and careful management of resources with an eye to long-term payoffs, advanced by the “pragmatic diplomacy” called for by the foreign minister.

Written By:
Brian Job
Dr. Brian Job is Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Political Science.
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