Trudeau's visit to China is important, but the road to Beijing goes through Moscow

  • National Newswatch

Justin Trudeau's official visit to China this week presents us with yet another opportunity to highlight the fact that Canadian foreign policy must be both multidimensional (i.e., including a substantive focus on issues beyond trade) and multi-vectored (i.e., possessing a deep, strategic engagement with countries other than the United States) if we are to be regarded as a serious player in global affairs. But if we are sincere about our desire to increase our international clout, then our thinking must also possess a third quality: It must be kinetic in nature.In Canada, we tend to think about regional theatres as being somewhat divorced from one another. The need to deepen our relationship with China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region is an issue deliberated largely in isolation from the question of how to deal with powers from other parts of the globe. In other words, as a country, we have not yet developed a foreign policy grand strategy.If we employ a kinetic approach to our foreign policy thinking, one thing becomes clear: Our ability to up our presence in a multidimensional fashion in the Asia-Pacific region today is dependent on the state of Russia-West relations. Put differently, Canada will be unable to contribute substantively to the setting of the Asian security agenda until a modus vivendi of some sort is reached with Moscow.In one way or another, Russia considered the American-led interventions in Kosovo (1999 and 2008), Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011) to be a violation of state sovereignty, and therefore of the principles upon which the stability of the international system rests. Moscow's interventions in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) represent an attempt to assert, in response to Western actions, a different interpretation of the nature of state sovereignty – one that opposes forced regime change and attempts to legitimate the notion of spheres of influence.Many contend that some sort of agreement will need to be reached that reconciles the Western and Russian worldviews. But Washington will be reluctant to make any compromises with Moscow that could set a precedent legitimating Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, where Beijing's increasing prowess is perceived as a threat by other Southeast Asian polities.China is in the process of a massive economic transformation, attempting to transition from being an export-based country to a more durable, consumption-based model. Combine this with the challenges the country faces in the demographic and environmental realms, and it becomes clear that there is no guarantee that China's rise will continue indefinitely. Washington has no reason to compromise on some of the fundamental pillars of today's world order if there is no guarantee that Beijing stands to overturn them.Therefore, Washington and Beijing will likely continue to assert their own ideological principles and their own narrow interests in the Asia-Pacific security realm over the short-to-medium term. In order to craft a more substantive and respected image of itself, Canada can and should make its voice heard in the region on issues that transcend trade and economics, but these pronouncements will likely have a negligible impact in a strategic theatre that will continue to be defined by increasing brinksmanship between major powers.In this geopolitical context, Canada's immediate focus in the Asia-Pacific should be on deepening economic, cultural and political ties with regional powers. This will provide Ottawa with the ability to develop and eventually activate strategic assets, if and when Washington concedes that a new regional security order needs to be constructed based on the principle of Sino-American partnership.However, being one of just five coastal states in the world's circumpolar region, Canada has a much greater ability to set the policy agenda in the Arctic than it does in the Asia-Pacific. If Ottawa were to push for the establishment of an Arctic Union – an institution that would go well beyond the current scope and mandate of the Arctic Council – it would advance Canada's Pacific position indirectly in several ways.First, if the organizing principle of geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific ultimately becomes some form of containment of China, then it will be useful to have Russia as an ally in this endeavour, and therefore to ensure that Moscow not feel alienated from the West. Second, the advent of an Arctic Union would represent a test run for the eventual establishment of an institutionalized Pacific Community further down the road, and meaningful Canadian participation would be sought to build the latter due to Ottawa's involvement in the creation of the former.Third, a successful attempt by Ottawa to diminish Moscow's current geopolitical isolation by way of Arctic regional integration could persuade Washington that a collaborative approach toward China is preferable to a confrontational one. This, in turn, would provide Canada with the opening it needs to be able to shape the Asia-Pacific's regional security framework. And fourth, China has demonstrated substantial interest in the Arctic region; therefore, if Arctic states (including Canada) pool their resources and broaden their cooperation, they will be able to maximize their geopolitical capital in their dealings with Beijing.In all likelihood, we are living today in what will be remembered as the Pacific century. But let us not allow our long-term ambitions to distract us from the hard work that is first required to realize them. When it comes to setting Canadian foreign policy imperatives over the coming years, the road to Beijing goes through Moscow.Zach Paikin (@zpaikin) is an editor at Global Brief magazine and a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of Kent.