PacNet #21 – How feminist is Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy – PART TWO: The ‘Needs Improvement’

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In Part I of this series, we examined Canada’s 2022 Indo-Pacific strategy (CIPS or the Strategy) in terms of how well it aligned with the country’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), which is functionally Canada’s feminist foreign policy (FFP). In Part II we take a deeper dive to examine ways the strategy could improve to better reflect the country’s FFP aims on four issue areas: i) regional peace, resilience, and security, ii) boosting trade with and within the region, iii) norm-setting and commitment to rule of law, and iv) promoting people-to-people connections, and sustainable future. 

Promoting peace, resilience, and security

While the Strategy aligns with the FIAP in a call for an increased presence of women in peacekeepers, it does not include an expansion of Canada’s Elsie Initiative on Increasing the number of Women in Peace Operations, a policy that has already set Canada apart as a FFP leader, wherein women’s representation in roles includes their presence in positions of power.

More problematic is that CIPS, despite alluding to peace and conflict resolution, remains reliant on militarism, which is problematic for an already over-militarized region. For instance, it has a strong emphasis on bolstering Canada’s military and spy network, and, by aligning its language with other Western powers, the bulking up of Canada’s military could potentially make it part of a disruptive force that stokes greater regional tensions at a time when a fresh, gender-sensitive approach is needed. More distressing is the confrontational tone on the People’s Republic of China (more on this in the last section). The strategy brands China as a “disruptive global power,” using more strident language regarding China than previous foreign policy. This approach may also be contrary to the wishes of countries in the region that do not wish to be caught in the middle of a great power struggle and rapid military build-up that could potentially stir regional instability.

Essentially, through securitization of several aspects of Canada’s approach to the Indo-Pacific, the strategy is in tension with Canada’s FFP, which may pose a challenge to regional stability and tarnish Canada’s role as a global peacebuilder.

Boosting trade with and within the region

Canada’s announcement of the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES), as well as working collaboratively within existing regional structures, is a good start in carrying out the country’s FFP in the economic arena. On the other hand, the trade section of the strategy isolates China by aligning with policies like the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), and others that bypass China, raising concerns of further antagonization of this regional competitor.

More importantly, the funding allocations within the strategy fail to tackle some anti-FFP aspects of existing trade policies. For instance, Canada has yet to remove its support for the Inclusive Trade Action Group’s investor-state dispute settlement process that supports multinational corporations’ penalization of countries introducing legitimate measures aimed at meeting human rights obligations and sustainable development goals, including those related to gender equality. The ISDS process has been used by Canadian mining companies to override the wishes of local communities related to water and land protection, and as such may inadvertently contribute to lowering of resilience and security of communities. Notably, gender-based violence (GBV) tends to increase when Canadian-owned extractive companies move into communities. In Indonesia, hundreds of Papua New Guinea women have alleged they have been raped by security personnel at these sites. Some argue that poorly designed trade policies like the ISDS allow Canadian companies to operate internationally with impunity, resulting in negative socio-economic consequences for impacted communities.

Furthermore, historically, trade policies have encouraged the privatization of public services such as healthcare, clean water, and education services. Such programs are consistent gender equalizers, and their loss can significantly undermine women’s stability. Yet CIPS does not address concerns related to these and other problematic trade policies already in place.

Norm-setting and international normative frameworks

While the strategy does mention the aim to work within existing frameworks, especially those that prioritize regional voices, CIPS ignores some important agreements, like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes 15 East Asian and Pacific nations of different economic sizes and stages of development including China; or the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement that has been operating for nearly 50 years. Instead, FinDev aligns itself with the US-sponsored IPEF which notably excludes China.

Furthermore, the FFP Dialogue text contains phrases such as, “dismantling persistent gender inequalities between women, men,” and “transforming social norms, power relations and discriminatory social, political, legal, and economic systems and institutions and structures that perpetuate, intentionally or unintentionally, inequality and exclusion.” Such activist language is a defining feature of Canada’s FIAP, yet this activist approach is toned down in the strategy. In a region with some of the widest gender disparities, CIPS makes no mention of transforming norms that perpetuate gender inequalities or challenging unequal power relations and systemic discrimination. Neither does CIPS define Canada’s foreign policy approach towards Indo-Pacific nations with more traditional gender roles, wherein, initiating a commitment to WPS would itself be a challenge. CIPS demonstrates awareness regarding Indo-Pacific diversity and state commitment to the WPS agenda. However, the document does not outline the significance of Canada’s FFP approach in its strategic engagement with Indo-Pacific states that do not have a dedicated WPS policy.

Connecting people and building a sustainable green future

As noted in Part I, the strategy does make important references to expanding the FIAP and creating and expanding sustainable investment programs. However, given how closely tied development and non-traditional challenges like climate change are to women’s empowerment, and how determinative women’s stability is in state stability, the strategy misses important opportunities to demonstrate Canada’s FFP objectives. If 2022 taught us anything, it was that extreme climate events have already and will continue to have enormous and adverse and costly impacts on human wellbeing. Moreover, climate and other disasters are expected to exacerbate existing fragilities and tensions, particularly for the vulnerable, threatening to roll back hard-one progress already made for the advancement of gender equality. So, a CIPS aligned with FFP principles on development and non-traditional security threats is more crucial now than ever before.

Additionally, while the Strategy acknowledges that “China’s sheer size and influence makes cooperation necessary to…address existential pressures, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and global health,” the strident stance on China in the rest of the Strategy makes it much more challenging to build Canada-China cooperation regarding key issues such as climate change or health security. If such language derails future talks in the short- and long-term, it will embody another significant opportunity lost for making progress on these crucial issues.


Looking at Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy as a whole, it is heavy on the militaristic rhetoric and confrontational toward China. While like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific have commonly recognized the threat China poses to regional security, there is less consensus on how to address Beijing’s provocations. Though China poses a geopolitical challenge to norm-setting by the United States and other Indo-Pacific players, the region should not overlook the need to engage with Beijing for gender inclusive approaches to regional security, health, climate and growth through consistent cooperation and diplomatic dialogue. Canada, as a late entrant into the region, has the potential to play a larger role in promoting cooperation. Unfortunately, CIPS doesn’t offer many solutions. The strategy lacks the specificity, activism, and funding needed to tackle some of the most intransigent problems related to gender inequality, blunting its impact on regional peace and security.

How could future iterations of the policy improve? Canada should look to the Indo-Pacific people for how to approach China. More specifically, while there are many ASEAN voices expressing views on China’s role in the region, Canada should define future foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific based on greater consultation with Indo-Pacific women’s groups—who acutely understand security from a grassroots perspective—to gain their perspectives on China and other matters. Beyond this, updates to the strategy should include reflection on whether CIPS implementation has demonstrated an effective whole-of-government integration and coordination with other federal feminist policies and initiatives. Without such self-examination and consultations, Canada’s approach to the Indo-Pacific is likely to mirror existing approaches to the Indo-Pacific with regard to women, peace and security and be no better than any other strategy on offer.

Maryruth Belsey Priebe ([email protected]) is the Director for Women, Peace & Security (WPS) Programs and a Senior Fellow at Pacific Forum International, holds a Harvard International Relations graduate degree, is a member of the Research Network on Women, Peace & Security in Canada, and a Teaching Fellow at Harvard Extension School. Maryruth researches at the intersection of gender and climate security.

Astha Chadha ([email protected]) is a Women, Peace & Security (WPS) Fellow at Pacific Forum, PhD Candidate at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, and a researcher at the university’s Democracy Promotion Center. She is a Japanese Government MEXT scholar, and her research focuses on Japan-India relations, Indo-Pacific security, South Asian affairs, and impact of religion on international relations.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the APEC Summit by Justin Trudeau on Twitter. 

PacNet #20 – How feminist is Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy – PART ONE: The Good

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Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy (hereafter, CIPS or “the strategy”), launched in late 2022, is a strong assertion of Ottawa’s mutual strategic interests, the aspirations of a middle power, and a Pacific state’s position in the Indo-Pacific that represents over $9 trillion in economic activity. Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy was aptly summed up by the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mélanie Joly:

“The future of the Indo-Pacific is our future; we have a role to play in shaping it. To do so, we need to be a true, reliable partner. Today, we are putting forward a truly Canadian strategy—one that involves every facet of our society. It sends a clear message to the region that Canada is here, and they can trust we are here to stay.”

Canada’s CIPS highlights the country’s commitment to making the free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific more inclusive through an emphasis on human rights, sustainable development goals (SDGs), and a feminist foreign policy (FFP)—defined as policy that rebalances power inequalities, and is informed by the everyday experiences of people who feel the consequences of such policies. While Canada has not developed an FFP, in 2017 the country launched its Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), its international assistance programming policy centered on championing gender equality. The FIAP has become the country’s de facto FFP, making Canada the second nation in the world (after Sweden) to develop such a policy. Furthermore, since the launch of the FIAP, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) has announced and begun listening sessions for establishing a formal FFP. The FIAP centers on gender equality and women’s rights, and specifies that Canadian foreign policy—including diplomacy, trade, security, development, and consular services—builds on a series of sectoral feminist policies and initiatives developed in recent years.

The new CIPS makes clear references to Canada’s FIAP as a key focus of Canada’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. But has the FIAP informed CIPS enough to give it feminist credentials? Referring to both the FIAP and dialogue documents related to development of a formal FFP, the following analysis looks at how the strategy aligns with Canada’s own feminist principles. Part I of the discussion—covered in this article—begins by looking at how well CIPS aligns with Canada’s FFP in four topic areas foundational to a middle power like Canada and its aspirations in the Indo-Pacific. These include i) regional peace, resilience, and security, ii) boosting trade with and within the region, iii) norm-setting and commitment to rule of law, and iv) promoting people-to-people connections, and sustainable future.

Promoting peace, resilience, and security

To examine the Strategy’s peace and security pillar, we look at the FIAP, which references Canada’s National Action Plan (NAP) for Women, Peace and Security (WPS), a policy that addresses more than an increase in representation of women in the military. It takes a whole-of-government approach covering not only peace and security policies, but also development assistance and humanitarian action. Furthermore, the FIAP covers participation of women and girls in peacebuilding, women’s rights in post-conflict state-building, and sexual violence in conflict, wherein it specifically ties women’s (human) security to larger security challenges. With this in mind, it is reassuring to see that CIPS calls for the increase of women peacekeepers, though this is perhaps the only way the Strategy aligns with Canada’s FFP on these topics.

Boosting trade with and within the region

On trade, the FIAP acknowledges that trade has “not always benefited everyone equally,” noting the importance of a progressive trade agenda that considers gender equality during trade negotiations, as well as strong environmental protections and labor rights. It calls out the importance of addressing sexual and gender-based violence, consultations with women’s organizations and movements, and the need to consider differential needs of women and men in Canada’s trade agenda.

So, how does CIPS stack up against these aspirational goals? It uses progressive rhetoric like emphasizing the need to support a trade system that is inclusive to create economic prosperity for everyone; enhances support for women entrepreneurs; and expands international partnerships through Canada’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES), designed to “help women grow their business through increased access to financing, talent, networks and mentorship.” It also hints at engaging in regional cooperation through a commitment to working within local economic systems by developing a Canada-ASEAN free trade agreement, a comprehensive economic partnership with Indonesia to launch a Canadian trade gateway in Southeast Asia, the Canada-India early progress trade agreement (EPTA). Prioritizing women, pluralism, and emphasizing collaboration over competition are all strategies that align well with the FFP.

Norm-setting and building a sustainable green future

An important element of Canada’s FIAP is the emphasis on “collaborating” in common causes and “learning” from partners. As such, engaging with existing regional frameworks is one way to put Canada’s FFP principles into practice. On this, the Strategy reinforces Canada’s multilateral missions to the United Nations, the European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and of course reinforces Canada’s commitment to its WPS NAP. The strategy also notes plans to appoint a special envoy to coordinate a whole-of-government approach, espouses ASEAN centrality, and calls for advancing Canada’s relationship with ASEAN to the level of strategic partner. By these measures, CIPS demonstrates Canada’s willingness to prioritize the voices of the region.

Looking at objectives 3 (investing in and connecting people) and 4 (Building a sustainable and green future) of the Strategy allows us to examine both development and non-traditional challenges within Canada’s middle power tool chest. Canada’s FFP Dialogue has leaned into a development agenda focused on achieving the SDGs by 2030, in part through the full and equal participation of women, and a focus on resilience through environmental protection and climate change mitigation. The FIAP also notes the importance of education and business development opportunities for women, and the need to address the disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work of women.

How does the strategy address these issues? First, and most promisingly, it references expansion of the FIAP, focuses on entrepreneurship through the WES, and connects to many other women-focused partner programs. The strategy also offers a host of green and sustainable investment programs, like FinDev sustainable infrastructure investments; the Dark Vessel Detection program (designed to halt IUU fishing); DRR expertise sharing; Expand Canada Climate Finance Commitment; Powering Past Coal & cleantech demonstrations; and Advancing Canada’s Global Carbon Pricing Challenge, among others.


Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy has many progressive elements, wherein it references Ottawa’s Feminist International Assistance Policy and other feminist principles in important aspects of Indo-Pacific growth, trade, connectivity, prosperity and inclusiveness. There is explicit recognition of the centrality of the Women, Peace and Security agenda which reflects a gender-sensitive awareness of Ottawa’s strategy towards the Indo-Pacific. These alone make Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy normatively progressive compared to other Indo-Pacific strategies. However, as Part II will suggest, the Strategy diverges from Canada’s previously stated feminist principles in some crucial ways.

Maryruth Belsey Priebe ([email protected]) is the Director for Women, Peace & Security (WPS) Programs and a Senior Fellow at Pacific Forum International, holds a Harvard International Relations graduate degree, is a member of the Research Network on Women, Peace & Security in Canada, and a Teaching Fellow at Harvard Extension School. Maryruth researches at the intersection of gender and climate security.

Astha Chadha ([email protected]) is a Women, Peace & Security (WPS) Fellow at Pacific Forum, PhD Candidate at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, and a researcher at the university’s Democracy Promotion Center. She is a Japanese Government MEXT scholar, and her research focuses on Japan-India relations, Indo-Pacific security, South Asian affairs, and impact of religion on international relations.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly responds to questions at a news conference by Mélanie Joly on Facebook.

PacNet #66 – Finally at the table, not on the menu: Canada launches its Indo-Pacific strategy

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On Nov. 27 Canada released a long-delayed Indo-Pacific Strategy. The strategy has five interconnected strategic objectives:

  1. Promote peace, resilience, and security
  2. Expand trade, investment, and supply chain resilience
  3. Invest in and connect people
  4. Build a sustainable and green future
  5. Canada as an active and engaged partner to the Indo-Pacific

These priorities reflect the intersection of domestic politics and a convergence with other like-minded countries on strategic imperatives for the Indo-Pacific. This includes understandings of the challenges that China presents for the post-World War 2 rules-based order. It will potentially influence the evolution of the region away from a rules-based order to one that redefines well-established norms such as democracy, human rights, and rule of law, core values Canada and like-minded countries share.

Domestically, the Trudeau government has championed diversity, reconciliation, and environmentalism.  It has succeeded in assembling a Cabinet that represents Canadian diversity. Diversity has also been core to strengthening the quality of Canada’s bureaucracy and protecting the rights and representation at all levels of Canadian society.

Reconciliation with First Nations peoples following the revealing in 2021 of mass graves of First Nation children has taken a prominent place in national discourse. Transforming Canada’s environmental formula to help lead the fight against climate change has become central to domestic political priorities.

These priorities manifest in three pillars of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (CIPS): 1) Expanding trade, investment, and supply chain resilience; 2) Invest in and connecting people; and 3) Building a sustainable and green future pillar of CIPS.

Linking Canada’s domestic agenda to address injustices to First Nation peoples, CIPS aims to support the economic empowerment of Indigenous Peoples through the implementation of the Indigenous Peoples Economic and Trade Cooperation Arrangement (IPETCA) in cooperation with existing partners—Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan—and Indigenous Peoples from those participating economies. Canada is creating new formulas for mini-lateral cooperation with like-minded partners to address domestic and Indo-Pacific indigenous peoples’ developmental challenges and injustices. This includes the Pacific Islands, who faced a legacy of colonial neglect of their indigenous people but also existential environmental challenges.

CIPS envisions reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples through enhanced indigenous exchanges with regional partners and will support education and skills development for indigenous youth, continue the implementation of the IPETCA, and support the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These CIPS initiatives highlight Canada’s commitment to international institutions and the rules they have agreed upon; a rules-based order.

Recognizing the critical importance of diversity in governance, business, and society, the CIPS has outlined its commitment to enhanced support to women entrepreneurs to maximize opportunities in the Indo-Pacific by expanding international partnerships through the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy. It has also committed to increasing feminist international assistance programming based on partner needs and helping to protect the most vulnerable populations and support work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Furthermore, CIPS support efforts toward democracy, inclusivity, accountable governance, and sustained economic growth, helping key countries in the region and working with development partners to reduce inequality and contribute to their economic prosperity.

These formulations will receive traction as they are less value-oriented. This is in contrast to initiatives to strengthen dedicated Canadian funding and advocacy to support human rights across the Indo-Pacific, including for women and girls, religious minorities, 2SLGBTQI+ persons and persons with disabilities. Many states in the region do not share Canadian views on these issues and they may complicate our engagement in the region.

Connecting Canada’s domestic commitment to combating climate change, CIPS will expand the capacity for FinDev Canada to support high-quality, sustainable infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific and provide alternative options to developing economies exploring infrastructure development. This complements the Japan’s Partnership for High-quality Infrastructure Initiative, the Blue Dot Network and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) to provide developing nations with choices for their infrastructure and connectivity.

These come with enhancing commercial representation of Canadian clean technology in priority Indo-Pacific markets and help Canada’s clean technology small and medium-sized enterprises with financial support to break into markets in the region. This builds on the already allocated $1.26 billion out of the Canada Climate Finance Commitment toward the Indo-Pacific to assist partner countries with economic recovery and infrastructure needs and to catalyze inclusive and sustainable development through Canadian capital, technology, and policy expertise.

CIPS will prioritize the Indo-Pacific as part of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which is working to help partners advance their transition from unabated coal power generation to clean energy. The collaboration with partners in the region, Canada hopes to support a transition to cleaner energy rapidly industrializing economies that will have a significant impact on our shared environment.

The convergence with other like-minded countries on strategic imperatives for the Indo-Pacific and concerns about China’s development trajectory reflect the internal debate within Canada of what kind of challenge China presents and the importance of seeing China as part of the Indo-Pacific rather than the reverse.

After a schizophrenic approach to China, CIPS recognizes China’s rapid and dramatic modernization of the People’s Liberation Army, including its offensive technological capabilities and geographic reach, its more assertive behavior and influence in the region.

To address these concerns, CIPS will promote security and stability across the region and at home by increasing military engagement and intelligence capacity as a means of mitigating coercive behavior and threats to regional security including the South and East China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Participation in the NEON Operations to enforce sanctions on North Korea, participation in Quad Sea Dragon 21 exercises, Keen Sword joint exercises, and the rotation of Canadian naval vessels in the region to contribute to naval diplomacy, maritime domain awareness activities, and transits through the Taiwan strait are all past and present activities to support a rulers-based order.

Concerns about the rise of coercive and irresponsible use of technology are reflected in CIPS. These include the spread of disinformation, ransomware, and other cyber security threats that directly affect Canadians, work to destabilize our democracy and our economy. CIPS stresses taking a leadership role in combatting these threats, investing in expertise and technology to better protect all Canadians.

Recognizing ASEAN Centrality as essential to a sustained Indo-Pacific presence, CIPS will stresses working with ASEAN and its member states to ensure full respect for international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in the South China Sea. Cooperation will stress boosting awareness of the region and enhance resilience and preparedness, as well as to protect against coercive tactics and the theft of sensitive data, technology.

Despite the significant resources that will be deployed to ensure that CIPS is impactful and sustainable, Canada will face credibility issues. First, the Trudeau government’s walk out of the initial TPP signing in Danang, Vietnam in 2017 created the impression that Trudeau’s government was not a reliable partner and did not understand the priorities of the region, trade, not progressive issues.

Second, naïve attempts to sign a FTA with China also including progressive issues and an ill-conceived visit to India with known Indian separatists has left the impression that amateurism, not pragmatism, lies at the heart of Canadian engagement with the region.

Third, the selection of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APFC) as the key organization to drive Indo-Pacific engagements seems contradictory. In May 2020, the Foundation released a high profile report entitled “Canada and the Indo-Pacific: ‘Diverse’ and ‘Inclusive,’ Not ‘Free’ and ‘Open’” followed by several high profile op-eds which rejected the idea of a free and open, rules-based Indo-Pacific order. Recently, APFC was recently a co-sponsor of the Nov. 1-2 East Asia Security Conference which invited a known denier of the cultural genocide of the Uyghurs in China and re-iterated the idea of like-minded countries and a rules-based order should not be the platforms for how Canada engages the region.

For Japan, the European Union, Australia, the United States, and ASEAN, this raises serious questions as to what will be the nature of CIPS engagement with an organization that has a track record of rejecting supporting a rules-based order in the region that has been the basis for post-WWII peace and stability and Canadian prosperity and values.

Dr. Stephen Nagy ([email protected]) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a senior fellow with the MacDonald Laurier Institute (MLI), a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). Twitter handle: @nagystephen1

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.