President Joe Biden arrives in Canada on Thursday with a focus on several of the world’s largest challenges: the war in Ukraine, climate change, trade, mass migration and an increasingly assertive China. The administration has made strengthening its friendship with Canada a priority over the past two years and Biden’s meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the capital of Ottawa is an opportunity to set plans for the future.
“This visit is about taking stock of what we’ve done, where we are and what we need to prioritize for for the future,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council. “We’re going to talk about our two democracies stepping up to meet the challenges of our time.”
National security and air defenses will likely be a priority, with a recent Chinese spy balloon floating over North America putting newfound urgency on Canada’s plans to update its radar systems and recent purchase of F-35 jets.
Trudeau signaled there could be an agreement to help stem the flow of migrants into Canada from the U.S. Migrants cross into Canada at a non-official checkpoint, enabling them to stay in the country as they seek asylum instead of letting the process play out while staying in the U.S.
“We’ve been working very closely with the Americans for many months and we hope to have an announcement soon,” Trudeau said.
The broadened focus represents an evolution of a friendship between the two countries that exceeds 150 years. The emphasis had more frequently been on issues like trade that had defined relations between the two countries, which share a 5,525-mile border.
There will still be an emphasis on trade, yet Canada and the U.S. see the partnership as crucial in supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, reducing their dependence on Chinese goods and shifting toward cleaner energy sources amid the planetary damage caused by burning fossil fuels.
It’s about strengthening air defenses for both countries, tapping critical minerals that will enable the production of electric vehicles, and military and economic commitments at a moment that observers say is the most dangerous since World War II. Chinese President Xi Jinping this week visited Russian President Vladimir Putin, pledging to deepen their economic ties in ways that could help fund Putin’s ongoing war to take Ukraine.
“The United States is coming with big strategic issues on their mind,” said Vincent Rigby, a former national security adviser to Trudeau. “It’s a world where they’re looking to allies to help.”
The ties between the two countries are without parallel. Trade between the U.S. and Canada totaled an estimated record of $950 billion (Canadian $1.3 trillion) in 2022. Each day, about 400,000 people cross the world’s longest international border, and about 800,000 Canadian citizens live in the United States. There is close cooperation on defense, border security and law enforcement, and a vast overlap in culture, traditions and pastimes.
Biden will address Parliament and Trudeau will host him for a state dinner Friday evening. It is Biden’s first to Canada since he became president, but Trudeau also gave Biden a state dinner when he was vice president in Dec. 2016 just before Donald Trump took office.
“It didn’t need to have happened. It was an incredibly well timed and wise investment on the prime minister’s part to do that and I think it’s paid dividends,” said Bruce Heyman, who was U.S. ambassador to Canada at the time.
Last year, Canada was exempted from the subsidy restrictions for electric vehicles in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. Heyman calls it a huge win for Canada. The European Union hasn’t received the same preferential treatment.
Senior Canadian government officials said this week in a call with reporters that Trudeau will ask for more inclusions in the Inflation Reduction Act and said meeting face to face with the U.S. president about bilateral issues is critical for Canada.
Goldy Hyder, CEO of the Business Council of Canada, said the expectation is that Trudeau’s message to Biden will be that Canada is ready to expand its U.S. partnership to tackle geopolitical problems: “You have no greater friend and we have a lot of what you need.”
Biden has used his foreign trips to reestablish the U.S. as a global leader that’s willing to listen to and work together with its partners, even as his administration has embraced an industrial strategy that is about reviving U.S. manufacturing and the middle class.
The trip comes after the president’s visit last month to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and Poland and as the 2024 U.S. election is heating up with the expectation that Biden will formally announce his plans to seek reelection.
One Canadian official noted that President Barack Obama didn’t stay overnight when he visited and Canada’s government is pleased that Biden will. Trump never visited Canada for bilateral meetings, his only appearance being a G-7 summit after which he and White House aides assailed Trudeau as a “weak” and dishonest” back-stabber. Trump threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement before eventually renegotiating it.
“I think that Trudeau’s biggest ask is that Biden win the next election,” said historian Robert Bothwell. “Everything else is subordinate to that,” A key point on the agenda will be modernizing the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which monitors the skies above the continent. The defense partnership was in the spotlight recently when NORAD tracked a suspected Chinese spy balloon that passed over the two countries before being shot down over the coast of South Carolina. A U.S. fighter jet later shot down an unidentified flying object in Canadian airspace.
The British, Australians and Japanese are all investing more in defense given the threats posed by Beijing and Moscow, and the U.S. expects its northern neighbor to do its part. Canada announced last year it is investing $3.8 billion (Canadian $4.9 billion) over the next six years to modernize NORAD radar systems and billions more years later, but David Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, has said the current threat climate calls for earlier investment.
Canada has long faced calls to increase its defense spending to 2% of its gross domestic product, the agreed-upon target by NATO members. Ottawa spends about 1.2% now. Canada announced in January it will purchase 88 F-35 fighter jets but at the time of the announcement said the first four don’t arrive for another three years. The U.S. is also pushing Canada to lead an international force in Haiti but Canada’s top military official has suggested he doesn’t have the capacity. “Biden is going to bring up Haiti and that’s one case where the Canadians have to say no because we don’t have troops,” Bothwell said.
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