Biden visit to strengthen Canada’s Pacific-nation credentials
US President Joe Biden arrives in Ottawa on Thursday for an inordinately delayed visit. Conventionally, Canada has generally been the first country to host foreign visits of newly elected American presidents. However, both Donald Trump and Biden have deviated from that norm, of course for very different reasons.
Unlike Biden, who last visited Ottawa as Barack Obama’s vice-president in December 2016, stressing at the state diner how the US needed Canada “very very badly,” there was no love lost between Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In his typical abrasive style, Trump publicly called the Canadian leader “two-faced … dishonest and weak.” Other than attending the June 2018 Group of Seven summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, Trump never visited Canada in his four years as president. But in the case of President Joe Biden, it was the Covid-19 pandemic that intervened to cause this delay.
Biden, though, has held several phone calls and online meetings and has sat in on other multilateral fora with Prime Minister Trudeau. Indeed, Biden twice earlier planned this visit to Canada, first in February 2021 and then last summer. But both times these plans were scuttled, first by the pandemic and then when he himself tested positive for the respiratory ailment, not once but twice.
But this visit finally taking place has brought to light the unique nature of Canada-US relations, which are often called “best friends, whether we like it or not.” But what is going to distinguish this summit as the two sides routinely sign several memoranda of understanding (MoUs) and agreements or enunciating new initiatives?
Especially for the world outside, this summit takes place against the backdrop of Canada having released its long-awaited, resource-driven Indo-Pacific strategy. The two countries’ convergence on the Indo-Pacific region, therefore, could make this summit an inflection point in their bilateral relations with implications far and wide.
This is because for the last two decades – as global focus shifted from the North Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific region – Canada missed the bus in connecting with this evolving narrative. Indeed, Canada, a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, has to date not joined the East Asia Summit that was set up in 2005.
Especially noticeable has been Canada’s absence from US-led Indo-Pacific initiatives. These include the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security mechanism of September 2021 and more recently the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework of May 2022. Even Trump did not exclude Canada from his revival of the Five Eyes alliance.
Canada has also remained outside the US-led Quadrilateral Security Framework, which has since co-opted New Zealand, South Korea, Vietnam into its new “Quad Plus” formulation. Post-Brexit “global Britain” – which strictly speaking is not a Pacific nation like Canada – is seen becoming a more acceptable US partner in the region.
Accordingly, Ottawa’s newfound enthusiasm for going an extra mile to conform to President Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy of February 2021 was visible in its own Indo-Pacific Strategy released last November. Among other replications from Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, the Canadian version calls China a disruptive power and India a critical partner for achieving its regional objectives.
Against that backdrop, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s impending US visit in June and then Trudeau and Biden both visiting New Delhi in September to join India’s Group of Twenty Summit may see Canada’s reconnect with the Indo-Pacific littoral getting further traction and elucidation. Only last week, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in New Delhi underlined India as a critical parter in Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Shared China challenge
All these aforementioned leaders feel increasingly connected by a shared China challenge even though their public articulations continue to shy away from saying so clearly. Indeed, world leaders’ denials often reveal more than they hide as they remain intentionally circuitous in their allusions to China.
Against the backdrop of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, officials in the US and Canada have been discussing their continued support for Ukraine.
For example, answering a question on China on Wednesday, Trudeau said, “Of course, we’ll be talking about China, but the center of our conversations will be about jobs and growth, critical minerals and fighting climate change, and continuing to build an economy across the continent that works for all of our citizens.”
It is important to remember that this Biden-Trudeau summit takes place in the midst of growing anti-China sentiment that, last month, witnessed the shooting down of a Chinese weather balloon and three other unidentified small flying objects. In Ottawa, these incidents have sparked simmering debates on China’s alleged interference in Canada’s two preceding federal elections.
Not only does this China factor promise the two leaders revisiting their Indo-Pacific strategies, but as a build-up to Biden’s visit, his half a dozen rather friendly meetings with Trudeau during various multilateral fora over last two years have quite synergized their personal chemistry.
Their January meeting in Mexico City saw them at perfect ease talking about their unlimited economic potential, their emergence as clean-energy powerhouses and leading the global transition to net zero emissions, recasting supply chains especially for critical materials to withstand together any pressure from China and so on.
NORAD and other issues
The most critical umbilical cord that requires their urgent attention is their aging jointly led continental defense system, the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Command. Since last month, NORAD has come under heavy scrutiny for its inability to identify three tiny flying objects and yet calling these threats to national security to justify its use of modern and expensive missile systems to shoot these objects down.
Canada has pledged to continue to support NORAD financially. But the need to strengthen NORAD has since been further accentuated by Russia’s recent use of hypersonic missiles. As well, amid the Ukraine war, President Xi this week reasserted China sustaining its “no limit” partnership with President Putin.
Various US agencies believe Beijing is set to begin supplying Russia with weapons as well. So as part of Biden’s “America is back” formulation, he and Trudeau are likely to give top priority to accelerating their ongoing upgrades to the NORAD but also look beyond for developing a wider spectrum of responses.
For instance, other than revamping NORAD, this requires building joint partnerships to cut down their dependence on China by redesigning and on-shoring and friend-shoring their supply chains to rationalize their dependence on imports from China.
Remember, in some critical sectors like green energy, China controls 55% of the global market for the chemical lithium required for batteries for electric vehicles. The same is true of photovoltaic products such as polysilicon wafers and cells for solar power generation critical for global climate0change mitigation.
Other issues for discussion will include the instability in Haiti, supply-chain resilience and the opioid epidemic in both their nations. There are also other irritants in their bilateral travel, trade and migration rules, and the impending onset of inflationary and recessionary trends could add to the complications.
Finally, upon landing in Ottawa on Thursday, Biden’s recollection of his last visit could be instructive to prioritizing his planned outcomes from his series of meetings over the next two days. Biden last visited Canada in December 2016 when the world was bracing for the inauguration of president Donald Trump. This saw then-vice-president Biden underlining Canada’s critical role in the maintenance of the “liberal world order.”
A more interesting comparison perhaps is the last presidential visit from the US, by president Barack Obama in June 2016. By then, candidate Trump had already emerged as a force to reckon with. Once again, US presidential election primaries are building momentum. And not only do large numbers of Republicans continue to rally around Trump, but the mid-term elections made them believe it will be easy for him to defeat Biden.
It will be interesting to see how Biden, who in 2016 saw Canada as a critical partner for saving the liberal order, projects partnership with Canada for multivariate challenges facing our post-pandemic world but also his presidency facing detractors both inside and outside the US. Where does Canada stand in his cost-benefit analyses?
Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.
Source: Asia Times
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