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It’s Time for Canada to Break the CPTPP Accession Logjam

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In mid-April, senior officials from the 12 members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) will convene in Toronto to review progress made by the CPTPP since its inception 5 years ago. Since then, all the original 11 signatories have ratified and implemented the Agreement and the UK has been accepted for membership, although its internal implementation process is still underway. Among other things, the CPTPP Commission senior officials, meeting with Canada as Chair, will begin work on the General Review of the Agreement, the terms of reference for which were finalized at the meeting of CPTPP Ministers in San Francisco last November.1; accessed March 21, 2024 The scope of the review will include a root and branch assessment of how the Agreement is working to ensure that business takes full advantage of its provisions, and that it remains of the highest possible standard.

With the ongoing problems of the World Trade Organization (WTO) where consensus on addressing problems ranging from dispute settlement to agricultural subsidies has proven elusive, the disciplines incorporated into an important and wide ranging plurilateral agreement like the CPTPP have become even more important. In addition to reviewing how the Agreement is working and considering whether to add new chapters covering additional topics, Commission officials need to decide on how to address the pending applications of six aspirant economies, China, Taiwan, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ukraine. Others such as Korea, Thailand and the Philippines have also expressed a general interest in joining, without having formally submitted accession requests.

With the ongoing problems of the WTO where consensus on addressing problems ranging from dispute settlement to agricultural subsidies has proven elusive, the disciplines incorporated into an important and wide ranging plurilateral agreement like the CPTPP have become even more important.

It is perhaps trite to observe that not all these economies are fully ready to assume the gold-standard trade obligations of the CPTPP in the short term, but indeed some have taken or are taking the necessary steps to be in full compliance with the Agreement once their membership application is accepted. Amongst these is Taiwan which, along with China, is the next in line to be considered from a chronological perspective having applied in September of 2021. China applied a few days earlier in the same month. Doubts have been expressed as to whether China is willing or able to take on all of the CPTPP disciplines,2“The CPTPP Bids of China and Taiwan: Issues and Implications”, Hugh Stephens and Jeff Kucharski Canadian Global Affairs Institute, November, 2022; but no one will know for certain until the accession process starts. The same could be said to apply to other aspirants.

To date, CPTPP members have focused their efforts on completing the ratification process for several of the original signatories who took longer than others to pass legislation implementing the Agreement (Canada was among the first six economies to ratify, thus bringing the Agreement into effect on December 30, 2018), and on finalizing the UK’s accession. That work is now complete, or virtually complete, and it is time to address the pending membership issue.

According to the CPTPP’s published accession process document,3; accessed March 21, 2024 the Commission will determine, “within a reasonable period of time after the date on which the aspirant economy made the Accession Request” whether to commence the process. This decision will be taken by consensus (Article 2.1). Benchmarks that aspirant economies must meet are set out in the document. Prior to the formal step of beginning accession, aspirants are encouraged to have consultation with each Party, “with a view to addressing each Party’s questions or concerns on interested areas”. (Article 2.2). These consultations are not considered to be part of the negotiating process, nor are they subject to the consensus rule, according to the CPTPP’s published accession process document. Yet to date, Taiwan for one has been unable to take even the first steps toward accession, i.e. beginning the informal Article 2.2 discussion process, because each time Taiwanese officials have approached a CPTPP member to offer to begin consultations, they have apparently been rebuffed on the basis that consensus among the existing membership is required.

This is a smokescreen. The accession document is quite clear that the consensus process (Article 27.3 of the Agreement) applies only to Article 2.1, and to a decision to commence the formal accession process by striking an Accession Working Group. Under Article 2.2, aspirants are encouraged to reach out to individual members as part of a preliminary process “for the purpose of smoothly carrying out subsequent Commission and Accession Working Group discussions”. To block the process at its most initial stage using the “lack of consensus” argument, when the market access offers of the aspirant economy have not even been presented or discussed, is both non-transparent and defeats the whole purpose of preparing for formal accession negotiations through advance preparation and dialogue.  

Each time Taiwanese officials have approached a CPTPP member to offer to begin consultations, they have apparently been rebuffed on the basis that consensus among the existing membership is required. This is a smokescreen.

It is not difficult to surmise why some, or perhaps all, CPTPP members have been shy to engage with Taiwan, even informally under the 2.2 rubric. That reason is China. China has opposed Taiwan’s accession from the outset,4“China blasts Taiwan’s bid to join CPTPP trade pact”; Lauly Li and Cheng Ting-fang, Nikkei Asia, September 23, 2021; even though it is not itself a member of the CPTPP, and arguably might not meet the requisite benchmarks to join. Were it a member it could block consensus, but it is not. It is unprecedented for a non- member to seek to block the application of another non-member, but that is what seems to be happening. Canada’s public position regarding accession of potential new members, including Taiwan, is that it “supports the expansion of the CPTPP to include economies that are willing and able to comply with the Agreement’s high standards, and have a demonstrated history of compliance with their trade obligations”.5Minister of Export Promotion, International Trade and Economic Development appearance before the Standing Committee on International Trade (CIIT) on the subject matter of Bill C-57, An Act to implement the 2023 Free Trade Agreement between Canada and Ukraine;; accessed March 21, 2024 That would appear to qualify Taiwan, and possibly others, but it will not be possible to ascertain readiness if the informal consultation mechanism offered by Article 2.2 continues to be blocked.

Canada, as current CPTPP Chair, has an obligation and an opportunity to resolve this impasse. Along with starting work on the General Review, the Commission should agree that any CPTPP member can commence informal 2.2 consultations with any aspirant economy without reference to the consensus requirement (CPTPP Article 27.3), leaving this as a strictly bilateral decision in the first instance. There is no need for consensus at this point because entering 2.2 discussions involves no commitments or obligations. It is simply a fact-finding exercise and exchanges of information.

A further step in this direction could be to make it obligatory for current members to respond to an aspirant’s request for informal consultations within a reasonable period of time. Without an obligation to respond substantively and in a timely fashion, the information gathering process foreseen by Article 2.2 could be dead before it even begins. Aspirant economies should not be arbitrarily denied the opportunity to enter into meaningful dialogue with CPTPP members. Refusing to answer the knock at the door is not consistent with the self-professed objectives of the CPTPP to “Promote transparency, good governance and the rule of law”.6CPTPP Agreement, Preamble,; accessed March 21, 2024

Even if the 2.2 logjam is broken–and Canada could make a major contribution to the CPTPP as Chair by taking this on and achieving internal agreement to the changes described above–there will still be a long process to complete accession for Taiwan, China, or any other aspirant economy. Given limited negotiating resources, it may be that aspirants should be grouped by degree of readiness, as ascertained by Article 2.2 discussions, in a “green/yellow/red” scenario, with the pace of accession negotiations adjusted accordingly. We would not presume to judge which economies would fall into which category; that is the purpose of the preliminary consultations and why it is so important that they be allowed to proceed without hindrance.

One option for consideration is for aspirant economies to be invited to become dialogue partners as they proceed through the process.7“The CPTPP Bids of China and Taiwan: Issues and Implications: An Update”, Hugh Stephens and Jeff Kucharski, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, January 16, 2024; This could allow them, for example, to attend meetings as observers while the accession process is underway, including Article 2.2 discussions. This would facilitate contact, build capacity, help develop consensus and identify areas of agreement and disagreement. Establishing a sort of “waiting room” for all aspirant economies would help break the current stasis and move the accession process forward, allowing those that clearly meet the benchmarks and have the capacity to fully engage to move ahead to potentially move faster than others.

As the second largest economy in the CPTPP, and as current Chair, Canada has an important role to play in leadership to clear the accession logjam.

While consideration of some sort of dialogue partner or observer status should be considered during Canada’s year as Chair in order to move the accession process forward, the most immediate need is to clarify that commencement of informal discussions under Article 2.2 is a prerogative of individual members, and that members should be required to respond in good faith and within a reasonable period of time to approaches from aspirant economies to begin such discussions. As the second largest economy in the CPTPP, and as current Chair, Canada has an important role to play in leadership to clear the accession logjam.

Hugh Stephens
Hugh Stephens
Hugh Stephens is an Advisor at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, and a former Assistant Deputy Minister for Policy and Communications at Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
Tim Sargent
Tim Sargent
Tim Sargent is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a former Deputy Minister of International Trade.
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