I am extremely grateful to have been invited to a Hard Talk conference in Ottawa this week on the need for an independent foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific, organized by Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Canada-China Focus, the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, iAffairs, and the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives at the University of Victoria.
My takeaway from the day-long event is that Canada seems to have jumped carelessly into a U.S.-led anti-China pact with significant implications for academic freedom, economic cooperation, peace, and perhaps the speed at which the world lowers greenhouse gas emissions.
The Trudeau government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, expected by year’s end, may yet prove this theory wrong. But even in adopting “Indo-Pacific” over “Asia-Pacific” (swapping a concept based on geography and economic relations for one “exclusively about great power politics,” as Senator Yuen Pau Woo put it in his opening remarks to the conference), Canada signals its acquiescence to Biden’s hegemonic project.
Below you’ll find a mishmash of my speaking notes for a panel on Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, insights I took from other presenters, and some observations on Freeland’s speech and Biden’s latest national security strategy, which might as well be the same document. Since it’s a bit of a read, let’s get some other trade news out of the way first.
Trade news and updates
ISDS threat to climate action: Groups behind a global statement (endorsed by the CCPA and circulated to the TIRP list last week), which asks countries attending the COP27 conference in November to stop negotiating, signing or ratifying treaties with investor–state dispute settlement, are still seeking signatories. The climate-ISDS links are very hot in Europe right now as country after country withdraws from the Energy Charter Treaty. You can read and endorse the statement here.
Trade preferences and labour standards: In the CCPA Monitor this month, TIRP member and Canadian Labour Congress researcher Elizabeth Kwan writes that “if Canada’s trade preference programs can be improved to raise living standards and improve working conditions and environmental policies, then they should be.” Canada is currently reviewing its multiple preferential trade programs under the generalized system of preferences, some of which expire at the end of 2024.
Extend the waiver: Canada’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee has released its findings from a study on vaccine equity and intellectual property rights. Among the recommendations are that Canada support extending the limited TRIPS waiver agreed at MC12 to therapeutics and diagnostic tools, as the TRIPS Council is currently discussing. It also recommends that federal funding for research and development should be conditional on any resulting IP being “easily licensed to manufacturers serving low- and middle-income countries.” The report further calls for a review of Canada’s Access to Medicine Regime (CAMR) in light of Canada’s failure to even respond to requests to produce generic versions of patented vaccines for export to Bolivia. A sign-on letter asking Canada to drop its delay tactics at the TRIPS Council and back an extension of the waiver to diagnostics and therapeutics will go out on the TIRP list soon.
And now back to the “Indo-Pacific.”
|Containment to Cold War 2.0|
Reading the 2022 U.S. security strategy is like jumping through the proverbial looking glass. Russia and China each get their own chapter—the former for its “imperialist foreign policy,” the latter for allegedly trying “to reshape the international order”—but the policy blends the two as if they were different faces of the same devilish coin. America must work with allies to contain and out-compete this united menace to the liberal world order.
“This means that the foundational principles of self-determination, territorial integrity, and political independence must be respected, international institutions must be strengthened, countries must be free to determine their own foreign policy choices,” reads the strategy. Thirty years of post–Cold War U.S. military adventurism and meddling are expunged from the official transcript. Only days after releasing the policy, the U.S. and Canada sent military equipment to help an unpopular regime in Haiti fight off a popular uprising; their failed joint interference in Venezuelan politics was just ridiculed in the Financial Times. No one does interference quite like America.
Countries may be skeptical, in other words, of U.S. assurances of self-determination and political independence. This is in fact what China has long offered as a pillar of its foreign policy and in fewer-strings-attached Belt and Road infrastructure financing, although we shouldn’t get too stary-eyed about it. The blurring of democracy and “open” (read: market) economies in the Biden and Freeland doctrines is another reason to doubt either’s openness to equal collaboration with all countries in the spirit of progressive internationalism.
The Obama administration’s 2015 national security strategy boasted that U.S.-China relations had never been stronger, “even as we remain alert to China’s military modernization and reject any role for intimidation in resolving territorial disputes.” At least some observers considered the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) an economic containment strategy to complement the redeployment of U.S. military forces to the region, putatively as a counterweight to Chinese military ambitions. On paper, at least, the 12-country “gold standard” pact was meant to create irresistible pressure in China to join, even though the TPP’s (later CPTPP) WTO-plus intellectual property rights regime and disciplines on state-owned enterprises would (the U.S. hoped) dampen Chinese endogenous technological innovation.
The Biden administration’s hardline approach makes even Trump’s tariff wars look reasoned in contrast. All talk of constructive cooperation is off. Biden has declared a “tech war” on China so that America can “own the 21st century,” with huge implications for the thousands of Chinese engineers, scientists and academics working in universities and labs across the United States and Canada. Many (1,400 U.S.-trained Chinese scientists left the country in 2021 alone) are returning to China or choosing to do their research in Europe to avoid persecution or stigmatization by overzealous security agencies and hostile media.
Anti-Asian racism—the “white elephant in the room” of Canadian history, according to historian and Hard Talk panellist Henry Yu—is becoming more overt and violent. Risk assessments of Canadian university research grants are creating a chill. Biased coverage of China in Canada’s two main newspapers fuels resentment and feeds into a new sinophobic McCarthyism on campuses and in the halls of government.
The parallels between Biden’s tech war and the “War on Drugs” in Latin America are also disturbing. In both cases perceived or imagined domestic failures (excessive domestic drug use; China’s competitive edge in 5G or hypersonic weapons) are externalized to justify imperialist aims, namely the continued dominance of Western capital and U.S.-style market governance.
This is a Sputnik moment for the U.S. Fears of a shrinking military gap with China pervade on both sides of the partisan divide even as Pentagon spending continues to jump upward. (The Chinese army doesn’t foresee parity with the U.S. before mid-century and even that dubious feat depends on China maintaining current growth levels, which is also unlikely.) China outperforming the U.S. in limited areas of artificial intelligence, 5G, and renewable power feeds this paranoia but conveniently unites Democrats and Republicans behind Biden’s industrial policies and massive subsidies for battery and silicon chip manufacturers.
Biden’s domestic industrial strategy, which aims to reshore high-tech supply chains dependent on China, will have spinoff benefits for Canada. It is also, deep down, a not bad climate policy in that a domestically built clean energy transition may be the only way to achieve broad public support for climate action and a just transition. But legal restrictions on sharing chip-making materials and knowhow, and possibly other high technologies, with China are needlessly and dangerously punitive and potentially highly disruptive to other Asia-Pacific nations.
Like it or not, intellectual property “theft” on the part of China, but more importantly the coordination of industrial development in electrification, computing, etc., is directly responsible for the sharp drop in the price of solar and other renewable power technologies, making renewable energy feasible on a large scale competitive with fossil fuels. Canada and the United States are well behind China on the adoption of “circular economy” projects, adoption of electric vehicles, and with respect to low-carbon technologies at scale in real-world environments, as Peter Drahos has written about.
Comparing Indo-Pacific strategies
As dangerous as Biden’s new Cold War policy is, if we step through another looking glass, it’s possible to see potentially useful developments in his administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
What’s to like? Well, more flexible economic cooperation commitments whose negotiation may lend itself to mutual appreciation of regional conditions, for one thing. In tying itself to an otherwise vapid “friendshoring” strategy, the U.S. administration may need to give as well as it gets. It’s not an antidote to neoliberal dogma, which permeates much of the so-called Indo-Pacific region as well (South–South free trade deals are very au courrant), but it’s also not the legal codification of that dogma preferred by Canada.
The Biden strategy is also more overtly worker-centric, at least on the surface and to a point. The U.S. seems legitimately to want to remove labour arbitrage from corporate sourcing decisions, to create a floor of sorts for wages and working conditions. On the other hand, supply chain transparency discussions are again aimed exclusively at expunging Chinese factories and materials from Asian exports to the U.S. (more containment).
However, transparency and state-to-state coordination are essential conditions for cracking down on forced and child labour and applying other due diligence checks on corporate supply chains. This is not far off from recommendations in a 2015 Senate report on Canada-ASEAN relations: “that the Government of Canada work with Southeast Asian countries to improve adherence to key United Nations human rights treaties, and to promote adherence to key anti-corruption and corporate social responsibility practices among businesses and governments throughout the region.”
What’s not to like in the U.S. strategy: a continued emphasis on digital trade rules favouring U.S. monopolist tech giants and banks; continued pressure with respect to “non-tariff” measures such as food standards; the aforementioned imperialist thrust and significant risk of provoking war; a continued emphasis on the globalization of expanded intellectual property rights, which utterly failed us in the pandemic, etc.
Looking for an independent Canadian foreign policy
Canada is making efforts to endear itself to Asia-Pacific powers and governance bodies like ASEAN, but the repetition of meaningless tropes about the international rules-based order isn’t helping. Nor will it help for Canada to be seen merely as a cheerleader for continued U.S. hegemony. For many of the panellists at the Hard Talk event at Carleton, it was difficult to see how Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, when it is eventually released, could be much else in light of Freeland’s pre-emptive declaration of war with “the autocrats.”
Canada has jumped the gun anyway with three broad trade negotiations (ASEAN, Indonesia and India) that will colour and limit what is possible through foreign policy in the region. Trade-related diplomatic infrastructure (e.g., bilateral and multilateral committees) can regularize conversations on a number of economic matters, but these are easily captured by limited corporate interests whose problems with the policy of other countries can bias media coverage and thus public perceptions. Corporate interests are not the same as the national interest.
To be independent, Canada must be humble. Freeland postures Canada as a world-making power when, in reality, we are more like the “in between countries” of her ill-considered Washington speech. Economically and politically, our influence with either China or the United States is about on par with many Asian-Pacific nations. We should acknowledge these similarities and consider non-aligned options for international cooperation focused on decarbonization and climate change, migration, public health, and labour standard across the supply chain. We should also take Freeland seriously (more seriously than her, I expect) when she says Canada and other liberal democracies need to lead by example, not through force or, more often for Canada, hyperbole.