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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe US-China Rivalry: What Are Canada’s Interests?

The US-China Rivalry: What Are Canada’s Interests?

Author: Margaret Cornish, former Canadian Foreign Service officer (1972-74, Beijing) and the delegation to the European Communities (1977-79).

Affiliation: The Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) and The University of British Columbia 

Organization/Publisher: The Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD)

Date/Place: October 29, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Article 

Word Count: 2995


Keywords: Canada’s Foreign Policy, Realpolitik, Power Transition to the East, Narrow Geopolitical Choices, and US-China Intense Rivalry 


The article reflects the criticism adopted by realists in Canada for the country’s foreign policy, especially with regard to Canada’s view of its international position in a world of growing fierce rivalry between the United States and China. The article poses a challenge to the mainstream in Canada, which favors, for historical and geographical reasons, alignment with the US interests and grand strategy as a superpower that seeks to maintain its global hegemony, its leadership of a rules-based liberal international order, and support for its efforts to curb China. The noticeable change brought about by China’s rise in the international system structure, as the author argues, should push Canada to review its foreign policy in order to preserve its core interests, which will be greatly damaged as a result of blindly siding with everything Washington does to restrict China’s rise. The article is divided into six parts. The first one diagnoses the international environment in which Canada is present today, the position of this country, and its role within it. Canada has always seen itself as a middle power, an ally player in NATO, a neighbor to the greatest global power, and an active contributor to global development aid through numerous international institutions. However, it was still treated by the US as a secondary power, as the US does not take into account Canadian interests and does not consult it on important global issues, the last of which was the AUKUS Agreement. On the other side, Canadians are still reluctant to be convinced that they are also a Pacific nation, where the power of China is rising. China also views Canada as a secondary power, but it does not allow it to underestimate its core interests without consequences. This should motivate Canada to maximize its core interests between the two competing powers by adopting a realpolitik that distances itself from any liberalist normative-ideological bias. Therefore, the author asserts in the second part that the US’ attempt to exclude China from global governance (through the Forum of 10 Democracies/ D10), making such governance the preserve of liberal democracies only, is unrealistic and contradicts the new realities of power. “If we acknowledge that the global system is inevitably in transition, we need to recognize the right of major powers to a seat at the rulemaking table in order for this transition to proceed in a stable manner.” Therefore, Canada should work with other middle powers to forge a global consensus, rather than continuing to affirm the unalterable “liberal values” of the current international order. The third part argues that “the 10 D Forum” is a US soft power mechanism to contain China, and reflects Washington’s economic inability to limit the growing economic influence of Beijing in East Asia (the largest trading partner of the region’s countries and other emerging economies across the world). It also reflects the inability of US military power to impose absolute US supremacy in Asia. That is why Washington resorts to soft power and ideological issues by forming a “coalition of like-minded countries” to confront Beijing. However, Washington’s campaign to mobilize allies has produced mixed results, as Asian and European leaders seek to provide verbal support while minimizing damage to their bilateral relations with China, and each has their own national interests. Canada, for example, displays a high zeal in support of liberal democratic values, but less support for an extremist political or military confrontation with China. The author warns the allies against blindly following Washington’s desires today, especially since the weak domestic political situation of President Biden represents a weakness for the leadership of this democratic coalition by Washington. The allies must take into account the possibility of a Republican president coming to power in Washington in 2024 that may be accompanied by a change in the US Global direction. For all this, the author clearly calls in the fourth part for liberalizing Canada from absolute compliance – without sufficient reflection – to American pressure aimed at drawing allies to restrain China, in order to avoid the potential serious harm due to that. She also calls for protecting the core interests of Canada regardless of normative-ideological considerations. Such absolute compliance may damage the innovation infrastructure in Canada and delay it in keeping pace with global technological development and the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the fields of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, life sciences and others due to the country’s connection to a large number of global scientific research networks, especially Chinese ones. Canada’s economic supply chain may also be in jeopardy unless Canada acts flexibly and carefully balances the two superpowers. The fifth part emphasizes the growing economic importance of China despite the efforts made to constrain it. Canada, and similar medium and small powers, have primary economic interests linked to China, so they should not put themselves in a position to be negatively affected in every contentious issue between Washington and Beijing. The author reminds that Canada’s political and commercial interests differ somewhat from those of the United States, so Canada needs to formulate an independent perspective of when and how its interests diverge in this competition. It should not become exposed to the flaws of American hegemony.  Finally, the sixth part summarizes a set of lessons that Canada should learn. For instance, it must realize that it has very narrow room for maneuver in a world of intense rivalry, and to focus on its core interests when it deals with states without paying much attention to the nature of its political regimes (democratic or authoritarian). Moreover, Canada needs to deepen its relations with Asian powers such as South Korea, Japan, Australia and Indonesia so that the Pacific becomes more familiar to it. It is true that such geopolitical realities are generally unpalatable to Canadian opinion leaders, but Canada needs independent participation in global policy debates aimed at creating a consensus between the United States and China. This gives Canada more credibility and leverage, as it does not have enough resources to play at all tables.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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