Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s week-long visit to India (Feb 18-24) generated more than usual media coverage in both countries. The fact that it was a mixture of positive and negative publicity compelled citizens and experts alike to pay greater attention to the manner in which the visit unfolded and its immediate outcomes. All those who believe that a stronger India-Canada relationship is in mutual interest need to delve deeper and comprehend the forces and factors that drive this relationship today. It is very important to draw correct lessons from the visit if there is a shared intention to deepen the bonds of friendship and cooperation in the future.
A Multi-Dimensional Relationship
What is it that attracts and holds Canada and India together, two nations so different and geographically so distant from each other? On the one hand, there is Canada, area-wise the second largest country in the world, with a population of 36 million, which is a rich and developed G7 economy. India, on the other hand, is the second largest country population-wise, with a population of 1.3 billion – an emerging economy growing at one of the fastest rates in the world. Nominal GDPs of Canada and India are US$ 1.76 trillion and US$ 2.65 trillion respectively.
The answer to the above question, undoubtedly, lies in a unique blend of history, commonality of values as liberal democracies, the Commonwealth connection, their economic complementarity, the Diaspora factor and the growing perception of shared interests, which resulted in the setting up of a ‘Strategic Partnership’ between the two countries.
The visit of PM Trudeau could not achieve the optimal result because a single issue, the Canadian government’s perceived support for the separatist Khalistani cause, weighed heavily and adversely on the tour from the beginning till the end – and even after his return home. This vexed question needs to be addressed more candidly and realistically by the authorities, keeping in view the larger, long-term interests of the two nations. At the same time, both sides should be very clear that the India-Canada friendship is not a one-issue affair; it is a truly multi-dimensional relationship. For it to grow stronger, careful and sensitive nurturing is required. A creative and forward-looking vision that transcends narrow partisan considerations is essential for this purpose.
Situated in different hemispheres, Ottawa and New Delhi look at the world differently.
Canada views itself as “an essential country” in “the life of the planet”. Guided by the political philosophy of the Liberal Party, it promotes a rulesbased, liberalism-guided world order, laying much stress on conflict prevention and peace, economic growth and prosperity, protection of human rights, gender equality and women empowerment. ‘Canada is back’, claims the Trudeau government as often as it can.
In terms of its foreign policy priorities, the U.S. ranks at the top. Much of the Canadian government’s attention since early 2017 has been fixed on negotiating changes demanded by Washington in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Relations with Europe are another priority, especially with Germany, France and the UK. The goal of concluding the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) was achieved in 2014.
High priority is also accorded to ties with China. Trudeau visited China twice (September 2016 and December 2017) in the past two and half years. Talking about cooperation with China, a senior Canadian diplomat stated that Canadians wanted “more, more and more”. Referring implicitly to India too, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, spoke of “the rapid emergence of the global South and Asia – most prominently, China – and the need to integrate these countries into the world’s economic and political system in a way that is additive…”
India, on the other hand, is located in a dangerous neighbourhood where it faces the world’s worst menace of cross-border terrorism and nuclear danger from two directions – the west and the north. The geopolitical environment is turning negative, with China’s steady rise, overbearing behaviour, and determined forays into South Asia through bold strategic moves and predatory economics. New Delhi, therefore, has to concentrate on managing its ties with the major powers – the U.S., China, Russia and a few EU member countries – as well as the states located in its immediate and extended neighbourhood. Canada, thus, does not figure among its priorities.
Nevertheless, the global situation is in a flux. Both power and action have largely shifted from Europe to Asia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The ‘Indo-Pacific’ stretching from the western Pacific to India’s shores, if not beyond, has emerged as the most important, complex and active theatre of international power play. This is not lost on Canada, a country with a very long Pacific coastline.
Ottawa, as the capital of a middle power, is conscious of the value of multi-polarity. It should, therefore, be sympathetic to the Indian view that peace and prosperity in Asia would depend on an effective balance of power rather than a Sino-centric Asia. This may explain several recent developments.
First, despite some reservations, Canada joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which is a reality, although it now stands without the U.S. Second, as a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Canada takes considerable interest in Asian economic affairs. It wants to secure a bigger slice of business opportunities in Asia. Third, it has been forging close cooperation with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) that figures high on India’s priorities too as part of the latter’s Act East Policy. Fourth, Canada is keenly interested to join the East Asia Summit (EAS). It managed to persuade the Philippines to invite PM Trudeau as the Chair’s special guest at the last EAS summit, held in Manila in November 2017. India is supportive of this ambition. Finally, Canada, like India, is a strong supporter of “freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the Indo-Pacific”, and it has expressed itself forthrightly on China’s unacceptable activities in the South China Sea.
It is a combination of the tendencies listed above, which should provide ballast to deepening the broad convergence in the worldviews of India and Canada. This shared identity of perceptions should be the foundation stone on which a new edifice of relations may be built.
The economic pillar of the bilateral relationship needs to be strengthened in mutual interest. A capital-and-technology-rich nation, Canada can surely have a much bigger profile of mutually beneficial exchanges with the fast growing and liberalising economy of India than the achievement so far of US$ 6 billion as bilateral trade in 2016 and US$ 2.9 billion as cumulative two-way Direct Foreign Investment. Canadian firms should explore opportunities more actively in infrastructure, urban development, energy, education, and health sectors. Indian companies can exploit the largely untapped potential of the expanding ICT business in Toronto and other Canadian cities. A top Indian business leader spelt out a promising future in five Es: economy, energy, education, entertainment industry linkages, and empowerment of women.
This author watched with interest PM Trudeau’s engaging interaction at a business forum in Delhi on 22 February 2018, which was attended by over 1,000 representatives of corporates from different parts of India and Canada. It was a serious and purposeful affair, born out of a careful calculation by India Inc and Canada Inc regarding excellent possibilities of expanding and diversifying economic links.
In this context, an important concern of the Canadian side deserves positive consideration. Canadian pension funds have begun investing sizeable resources in India’s equity markets. At present, the investments are estimated to be in the range of US$ 12-14 billion. The Canadian argument is that much bigger flow of investible surplus would occur, once the Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (BIPPA) is in place. The draft agreement has been on the negotiation table for several years. The two governments agreed, at discussions during the Trudeau visit, to intensify negotiations. They should strive hard to find a middle ground and resolve their differences in order to send out a signal to investors that the authorities fully support a bigger flow of investment into India.
The Khalistani Knot
While differences between the two governments on the Khalistan issue played out in the open before, during and after the visit, very little notice was taken of the fact that an important document named ‘Framework for Cooperation between India and Canada on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism’ was successfully negotiated and made public. This contains a broad agreement on the most sensitive facet of the relationship. Its implementation should be accorded high priority.
However, it should be noted that it is a political question, not just a police matter. Innovative measures may, therefore, be required to help Canada so that it begins to respect India’s sensitivities more scrupulously. The need for Canadian politicians, especially of the ruling party, to cultivate the Indian Diaspora, including the Sikhs, does not pose a problem. What is problematic is the public involvement of those in power with the miniscule elements that work against the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of India. In brief, anti-India activities on the Canadian soil have to be brought to a stop.
For this purpose, especially to prepare public opinion and to strengthen mutual understanding and resolve, two specific steps could be considered. Perhaps an informal dialogue between the two ruling parties – outside the glare of the media – and also a visit to Canada by Home Minister and the Chief Minister of Punjab to interact with the Diaspora and the Canadians at large could be useful. This could lead to Canada being convinced that the Khalistan movement ended in India a long time back and India has moved on. Hence, encouraging and supporting pro-Khalistan activities in Canada will achieve little other than preventing the Canada-India friendship from reaching its optimal level.
Amidst the controversies surrounding the Canadian PM’s visit, insufficient attention was paid to its positive outcomes. These included joint initiatives ranging from women’s empowerment to sustainable development, space, research on global development challenges and peacekeeping collaboration.
Tourism and education are two important sectors where huge potential exists. The more Indian tourists visit Canada and the more Indian students enter Canadian universities, the stronger momentum will develop that shall enrich the people-to-people relations. Promotional measures should be undertaken actively for this twin purpose.
The decision by the two governments to launch the ‘Canada-India Dialogue on Innovation, Growth and Prosperity’ bears long-term value. It is the fruit of the collaboration between Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation and India’s Gateway House. This dialogue between two prestigious think tanks will convene domain experts, government officials, and business leaders to promote economic growth and innovation in today’s digital economy. A sustained and inclusive policy dialogue is envisaged covering the following issues:
- The digital economy, innovation, the governance of new technologies, and productivity;
- India-Canada cooperation to enable skill development, capacity building, and cooperation on Indian smart cities;
- Promoting India-Canada trade and investment: opportunities and potential;
- Sectoral and global ‘commons’ issues: energy cooperation, space cooperation, peacekeeping, the Blue Economy, etc. and
- Global governance: cooperation in multilateral fora such as the reform of Bretton Woods institutions etc.
As Chair of G7, Canada is set to play a significant role this year in various global fora, including the G20. It has been taking greater interest in Asian affairs, showing a clear inclination to expand and deepen its cooperation with the two major Asian powers – China and India. Ottawa is amply aware of India’s growing importance in geo-economic as well as geopolitical terms.
For the Indian side, it may be useful to keep in mind that Justin Trudeau is only 46 years old. He has a long political career ahead of him. Doing business with him and holding his extended hand of friendship warmly is in our interest. The way forward is to strengthen, not weaken, the strategic partnership linking Canada and India.
And as to the Canadian leadership, it would do well by showing its traditional prudence and, as this author stressed elsewhere, by demonstrating “greater sensitivity to India’s core concerns than what Mr. Trudeau could muster” during his visit.
This article is an extract from the ‘debate’ on “India-Canada Relations: Present Reality & Future Directions” published in the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal Vol. 13, No. 1, January–March 2018, and is reproduced with their consent and permission. (Full text of the ‘debate’ is available at: http://associationdiplomats.org/Publications/ifaj/Vol%2013/13.1/IFAJ-13.1-DEBATE.pdf)
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former ambassador. He served as Consul General in Toronto during 1994-98.
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