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A China slump and another President Trump?: Foreign affairs experts break down 2024’s geopolitical hotspots

News

As federal MPs leave their ridings and return to their green padded seats in the House of Commons at the end of this month, we at The Hub thought it would be a good time to ask Canada’s leading foreign affairs experts, some of whom have spent time advising the federal government, which major global affairs issues and regions they believe our elected representatives must keep top of mind during the 44th Parliament.

We can’t predict what MPs will focus on when they get back to policymaking, but here’s what the experts think they need to look out for immediately:

China’s decline and an impending Canadian G7 summit

Garry Keller, vice president at StrategyCorp and former chief of staff to John Baird, former foreign affairs minister

As 2024 begins, it’s hard not to be consumed with a feeling of foreboding given the state of the world. 

Conflicts like Russia/Ukraine and Israel/Hamas continue to fill our news feeds, and, of course, the U.S. presidential election cycle kicked off in earnest this week with the Iowa caucus, followed closely next week by the New Hampshire primary. Given the impact of the last Trump administration on Canada’s trade, domestic, and foreign policy, we should obviously be watching the 2024 cycle closely.

2024 is a unique year. Nearly half the world’s population is eligible to vote in elections. While no one should be paying much attention to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s sham campaign, countries like India, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom will also be in election mode.

Outside of those news-leading events, I’m watching for the following:

1. China’s economic dip. The Chinese economy experienced a downturn over the course of 2023. The reality of falling exports, weak demand, increased “friendshoring” and the decline in the property market (see real estate developer Evergrande) will be something to watchAs well, the re-election of the Democratic Progressive Party to Taiwan’s presidency last weekend means the cross-straits relationship will continue to impact regional security decisions.

2. The Canada-India relationship. Given how the bilateral relationship has deteriorated over the years, coupled with Prime Minister Trudeau’s accusation in the House of Commons over Indian involvement in the Hardeep Singh Nijjar murder, plus Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming re-election campaign, Canada-India relations will continue to be important to watch, especially for Canadian industry and business.

3. BRICS expansion: Impactful or much ado about nothing? This month we saw the BRICS alliance welcome five new members: Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They join Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Given that founding member Brazil is scheduled to host the G20 this year, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE are playing an important role in the world economic and political order, how does BRICS membership impact the “democratic West,” especially how the United States deals with these three players (if at all…)?

4. Canada to host a G7. With the 2024 G7 leaders’ summit scheduled for this June in Italy, work has already begun across the government of Canada to sketch out what our priorities will be for our 2025 presidency. A G7 summit in Canada during a potential election year may make for interesting domestic considerations!

Trump and AI’s shadow loom large

Janice Stein, Belzberg Professor of Conflict Management at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

1. The U.S. election and Trump 2.0. One global issue “trumps” all others for Canada in 2024. The presidential election in the U.S.—both in its direct impact on our bilateral relationship and indirectly through its impact on all the global issues that Canadians care about, from climate change to peace and security. We need to prepare now for two scenarios.

2. Artificial intelligence. A second issue that does not get the attention it deserves is the development and regulation of artificial intelligence. AI will affect all of us in increasingly important ways in the next few years. Canada was an early pioneer in AI but has not kept pace with the investments that the private sector and governments have made in other countries. Brazil, France, and Saudi Arabia are now investing in big ways to grow national champions. We risk being left behind.

We need policymakers at the table now. Canadian scientists and businesses need more “compute” power if we are to stay in the game. Then we need “smart” regulation for a technology that promises both great opportunity and serious risks. Ottawa should be engaging now in widespread public consultations about AI regulation. It can then partner with other like-minded governments who are more likely to move at speed than multilateral institutions. Acting as a coalition, they can regulate the design of systems so that they minimize the harms and get out of the way of responsible innovation.

In the last decade, Canadian governments, working together with the private sector and universities, have grown the talent pool. That strategy worked. We have some of the very best people in the world right here at home. We need policymakers to build on that success now if we are to reap the benefits of our early investment. Otherwise, we will watch Canada blow a lead, yet again.

A negotiated settlement in Ukraine and the Red (Sea) scare

Ann Fitz-Gerald, director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University

1. The war in Ukraine. 2024 will pave way for continued offensives and counter-offensives in the Ukraine-Russia conflict. While Ukraine will build on its use of drones, Russia will continue to use disinformation strategies to disguise the levels of war fatigue it is experiencing and appease the population of the Ukrainian territory it seeks to control. It will also deepen alliances in the Middle East and Africa.

A reluctance by both the U.K. and the U.S. to put “boots on the ground” during election years may, at best, result in airpower support (F-16s) to shore up Ukraine’s air defences, the lack of which has weakened its ability to protect troops. But a win for Donald Trump in the 2024 U.S. presidential election will likely mean a significant U.S. retreat from Ukraine. This will compel Europe to front the defence of its continent, and with less collective capability to use force, may necessarily push some form of negotiated settlement.

Members of the pro-Ukrainian Russian ethnic Siberian Battalion rest at a military training close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo.

2. Africa and the Middle East. The Horn of Africa will remain a flashpoint in 2024. Current tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia over a signed MOU between Ethiopia and Somaliland that intertwines sea access with Ethiopia’s formal recognition of Somaliland. This will raise concerns across an otherwise peaceful Somali Regional State of Ethiopia, igniting Somali nationalism and potential linkages with other armed nationalist movements, which roam freely in Ethiopia’s other regional states.

Eritrea will continue to feel betrayed over Ethiopia’s post-conflict realignment with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces in Sudan will rage on, and a proxy battle to control Red Sea commercial shipping corridors will continue. Ongoing fighting will persist in the form of localized terrorism and insurgency campaigns.

Tensions between the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are also likely to emerge based on the UAE’s continued support of the Ethiopian federal government, while Egypt aligns itself with both Somalia and Sudan. Based on threats posed to the economic supply lines, a new Trump presidency will bring heightened readiness for military intervention in the Red Sea region. The combination of shifting and expanding alliances in the Horn of Africa region and the U.S.-led defence of the Red Sea waters will gradually impact a wider set of actors, including Russia and China, both of which support Eritrea.

3. Arctic China? Although China has been focused on its quest for economic supremacy vs. military activity, its interests in expanding its maritime beltway will see foreign adventurism in the Arctic take on new levels.

4. Misinformation. The rise of transboundary threats enabled by unregulated generative AI will intensify misinformation in elections and democracy, exacerbate harm to children’s mental health based on deepfake manipulation, and entrench powerful monopolies that undermine fair markets and economic dynamism. It will produce a dislocated and inequitable economic structure in an already challenged set of civil society inequities. Lastly, it will undermine the global copyright system.

Invest at home to invest abroad

Roland Paris, Director, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

1. Canada’s foreign policy investments. Governments will always be tempted to announce new initiatives, but what Canada really needs now is to focus on essentials. This is not about a specific overseas event. There is a need to strengthen the foundations of Canada’s international policy so that we can defend and advance our interests. This means rebuilding the instruments of that policy—our defence capabilities, proceeding with the modernization of our foreign service—and the policy capacity of the government to deal with that. We’ve allowed them to weaken. It also includes starting now to prepare for a possible return of the Donald Trump to the White House – arguably the biggest foreign-policy risk facing Canada.

This is a year to make sure that we’re getting the fundamentals right. If Canada wants to be at any number of important international tables, we need to be contributing to efforts alongside our partners. One of the effects of allowing our international instruments to weaken is that we are not being invited to some of these discussions which are important for our interests.

2. Canada’s military. Crises are multiplying and Canadian interests are more exposed today than in decades. Canada’s military should be seen as an insurance policy against an even more unstable world, yet the the defence policy update first promised in 2022 still hasn’t been announced. Meanwhile, the readiness and capacity of the Canadian Armed Forces have been weakening at precisely the wrong time.

3. Canada’s foreign service. We need to transform and modernize Global Affairs Canada. There was an internal discussion paper, and then the associate deputy minister of Foreign Affairs issued a statement, and then there was the report by the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, led by Peter Harder and Peter Boehm. (The committee called for the first substantive examination of Canada’s foreign service in more than 40 years.) They identified a number of ways in which our foreign ministry has to be transformed. But that’s going to cost money, and the department’s budget has been cut. This transformation must include getting more Canadian diplomats, our eyes and ears abroad, out into the world so that we can understand problems when they’re emerging.

4. Our Indo-Pacific strategy. It’s one thing to have a strategy for this vital region, but another thing to fully implement it. We’ve seen a lot of trips by ministers and the prime minister this past year, and a new special envoy has just been sent to Jakarta, Indonesia. But if this is increasingly the centre of global economic growth and increasingly an important region in geopolitics, we can’t just pop in from time to time. We have to be present, building or rebuilding those relationships in the region.

The beginning of the end for Quebec Premier Francois Legault and the mighty CAQ?

News

Although a Quebec election isn’t expected for a couple of years, if it were held tomorrow, the separatist Parti Québecois (PQ) would win a strong minority government. One recent December poll shows the governing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), once a party that appeared it could do no wrong, dropping 16 points in a year, with the PQ gaining 16 points. Premier Legault’s five-year-long honeymoon may now be over.

Only a little over a year ago, the CAQ was riding high, having won its largest majority in which it gained 90 of 125 seats in the National Assembly in the 2022 provincial election. Four years previous, the seven-year-old party won their first landslide majority victory, claiming 74 seats. The party had slain the Liberal and PQ dragons that had run the province for nearly half a century.

Today, according to the polling aggregate site 338Canada.com, the CAQ would win just 19 seats. The PQ would jump from four to 57 seats.

Pitching themselves as a new nationalist but non-sovereignist party with pragmatic centre-right policies on the economy and cultural issues, the CAQ once seemed unassailable. CAQ leader and co-founder Francois Legault was seen as the most popular premier in the country, even during the height of the Quebec pandemic lockdowns he implemented, which were some of the most intense in the world. He was lauded for his “folksy charm” and “optimism”. Today, some polls list Legault as Canada’s least popular premier.

Feeling the pinch

According to 338’s founder Philippe Fournier, Québecers are feeling the same economic pain the rest of Canadians are experiencing, but rather than pointing the finger at the prime minister, they are pointing it at their premier.

“Many Canadians outside of Québec blame the Trudeau government for the cost of living and inflation,” says Fournier. “[But] [t]he first government for Quebec voters is the Quebec government, it’s not the federal government.”

Rodolphe Husny, a Quebec consultant, political commentator, and former advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, says Legault must make challenging changes to the way he governs to turn the ship around.

“Legault himself, when he was re-elected, said it’s important to have courage in politics,” says Husny. “But the reality is that when he had to make tough choices, sometimes he didn’t make them.”

Fournier agrees Legault’s personal missteps have contributed to this swift decline in the popularity of his party.

“2023 has not been a good year for Legault in general because he himself has looked uncertain at times,” says Fournier. He lays out that the CAQ has made several big communication mistakes with the public.

Quebec City: a flashpoint frustrations

One of the major missteps commentators point to is Premier Legault’s broken promise to build a multibillion-dollar mixed-vehicle third crossing over the St. Lawrence River, between Quebec City and the suburb of Lévis. Last April, the provincial government scaled back its plans in a big way, announcing the bridge would only service public transit.

In October, a PQ candidate emerged victorious by a margin of 23 points over their CAQ opponent in a byelection held in the Quebec City riding of Jean-Talon. Within 24 hours, Legault then announced he was prepared to begin new consultations on the third crossing.

Quebec City continued to cause headaches for Legault’s government.

In November, the CAQ again found themselves under fire for announcing that as much as $7 million in public funds would be spent hosting the National Hockey League’s Los Angeles Kings for a 2024 pre-season game in the capital city.

Husny says the decision to pay for millionaire hockey players to play a non-regular season game in Quebec City was a tipping point for many voters.

“That’s when basically everybody said, ‘What kind of management is that?’” says Husny. “In a way, it was a very important coup de grâce, and it showed that the government was in disarray.”

Affordability hits Legault hard

Fournier says the heightened cost of living, inflation, and the housing crisis have all begun to impact Legault’s popularity far more than other premiers in the rest of Canada.

In 2021, when Legault was riding high in the polls, he stated that apartment rent in Montreal started at around $500 or $600 a month, in response to a question about affordability.

At the time, the average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Montreal was $903 per month.

Last December, it was reported that rent in Quebec had risen faster than any other province in Canada, at a rate of 10.9 percent annually, driving monthly rents for a two-bedroom apartment in Montreal up to $2,278 per month.

Legault has appeared out of touch on the housing issue.

In the rest of Canada, the federal government headed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has largely taken the blame for the housing crisis. Not so in Quebec. Again, voters in the province largely blame their premier.

The CAQ has likely only made matters worse by voting to give provincial politicians in the National Assembly a $30,000 annual raise. All this, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.

Impossible to separate Legault and the CAQ

While there is time to improve, the CAQ’s perception as the party of Legault and the nature of its delicate coalition of federalist and sovereigntist voters has raised questions about the CAQ’s long-term viability.

Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada says the CAQ and its fortunes are firmly tied to Legault’s image.

“It’s not a one-man show, but this is a party that’s really centred around Legault,” the professor admits.

Given that that party is Legault’s creation, Husny says the CAQ is seen first and foremost as his party. Husny says this has proved to be both a benefit and a liability. The CAQ’s broad coalition of federalists and sovereigntists may have helped it win two successive majority governments, but without Legault, there are doubts about its stability.

Husny points out that Legault’s finance minister is a former federal Conservative candidate, his vice premier was once floated as a PLQ candidate, and his education minister is a former PQ MNA.

“You have three key ministers in cabinet who come from three different backgrounds when it comes to federal and provincial politics,” explains Husny. “But, they all serve under the same government because Francois Legault is the mortar in all that, the cement.”

Fournier says the CAQ and the PQ both draw from the same pool of sovereigntist voters, even if many of these voters are not as hardline as they were in the 1990s.

“They left the PQ to support the CAQ in 2018,” says Fournier. “In CAQ, the C stands for Coalition, and this is the danger both for the PQ and for the CAQ.”

Without Legault, says Béland, there is a strong possibility that the CAQ’s coalition will disintegrate.

“The federalist wing and the really strong nationalist, quasi-sovereignist wing could really split apart,” he predicts. “But the proof is in the pudding, right? So we’ll see.”

The PQ’s popular leader is a problem for Legault

Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, the PQ’s leader since 2020, led his party to a poor showing in the 2022 provincial election. The PQ lost four of its seven seats, and its share of the vote declined. But in 2023, his leadership dramatically improved the sovereigntist PQ’s appeal, culminating in the byelection win in Jean-Talon.

Husny says Plamondon was not particularly charismatic when he first became PQ leader but built up that aspect of his leadership by convincing voters he was an authentic politician.

“He was very principled,” says Husny. “For example, when he was first elected, he refused to swear allegiance to the King, and people respected that.”

Parti Quebecois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, centre speaks at a news conference as the fall session comes to an end, Friday, December 8, 2023 at the legislature in Quebec City. Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press.

Plamondon made headlines when he refused to take the traditional oath of allegiance to King Charles III when he was sworn in again as an MNA following the 2022 provincial election.

“[Y]ou can’t serve two masters at the same time,” he said at the time.

In December of the year, the PQ was denied entry to the National Assembly for refusing to swear the oath. This led to the Assembly voting to make the oath optional, which was decried as unconstitutional in the rest of Canada but has not yet been legally challenged.

In the first poll following the 2022 general election, and after Plamondon’s refusal to swear the oath, the PQ climbed 3.4 percent in the polls. The CAQ dropped five points.

However, Fournier and Husny agree that support for the party has little to do with the sovereignty question. Fournier points out that support for a sovereign Quebec remains below 40 percent in surveys. 

PQ’s Plamondon unafraid to speak out on contentious issues

Béland says Plamondon has done a good job keeping the PQ on the public radar, despite holding only four seats.

“He’s been quite effective in terms of communications and in terms of always finding new issues to raise to stay on the agenda,” says Béland.

Husny agrees that Plamondon’s willingness to speak out honestly on contentious issues has resonated with voters.

“On immigration and other things, he’s basically saying the way he feels and not to be popular, he’s even criticized wokeness,” says Husny. “Sometimes I think it’s the style or the authenticity more than the charisma, but I think he’s young and energetic.”

Last January, Plamondon lamented how difficult it was to have a “healthy conversation” about immigration after calling for lower levels of immigration into Quebec.

Plamondon also cautioned that dissatisfaction around immigration would be exacerbated if the province could not provide sufficient services to the population. While the PQ leader was accused of xenophobia, polling across Canada, especially in Quebec, has suggested a large majority of Canadians now want lower levels of immigration.

The premier has also stepped into the immigration fray. Just prior to the 2022 provincial election, Legault declared that increased immigration would be “suicidal” for the French language.

Nevertheless, it was reported in November 2023 that the Quebec government would actually increase its immigration levels to 60,000 newcomers this year, albeit with a French-language test for temporary foreign workers.

Other parties in Quebec not benefitting from CAQ’s unpopularity

Even with Legault’s failings, other parties like the Parti libéral du Québec (PLQ), which have historically been the party of choice for federalist voters, and the left-wing and sovereigntist Québec solidaire (QS) have not seen any boost in their polling.

Husny says the PQ deserves credit for being more or less the sole beneficiary of the CAQ’s declining popularity.

“It’s been a 100 percent transfer from the CAQ to the PQ,” says Husny. “The (provincial) Liberals or Québec solidaire have not made any gains.”

The PLQ has not had an official leader since shortly after their poor showing in the 2022 provincial election. With an interim leader, Husny says the Liberals have been unable to benefit from any wavering federalist voters who voted for the CAQ in 2022.

The Parti conservateur du Québec (PCQ), founded in 2009, had never won a seat in the National Assembly. However, under the leadership of Éric Duhaime, the party rose in popularity to the point of nearly winning a handful of seats in the 2022 provincial election. However, they were unsuccessful and remain an extra-parliamentary party.

Béland says the PCQ’s opposition to Quebec’s strict public health mandates during the pandemic gave them a boost at the time. However, he says the Conservatives’ efforts to attack the CAQ by shifting their focus to the economy will be stymied by a lack of parliamentary representation.

“I think that makes it much harder when you don’t have any representation,” says Béland. “Yes, there are cost-of-living issues, but other parties like Québec solidaire, the PQ, and the Liberals are also focusing on that.”

CAQ has time to recover before the next election

Fournier says whether or not the PQ’s surge will last will be revealed soon enough. He adds that the CAQ will have an opportunity to plot out its road to recovery when it presents its spring budget.

“It will be time for the CAQ to prove its strength, which they said was handling the economy, and trying to reduce wait times in the emergency room,” explains Fournier.

Several public sector unions in Quebec had been on strike since November but reached an agreement at the end of 2023. Fournier says the end of the strike means the CAQ are free to refocus on the economy, which he says may be their saving grace.

At the end of the day, the CAQ’s politicians and supporters may be able to reassure one another that their major missteps appear to be mere poor political decision-making in the moment, as opposed to wider deep-seated problems with the party’s mindset and direction.

Béland says there are still more than two years before the next provincial election, which should give the CAQ hope and time to mend its image.

“So they have time to maybe rebuild some of the bridges that were burned, or rebuild some of the confidence that they’ve lost, but it’s now a much more politically difficult environment for the CAQ,” he admits.