Can Canada, India Reset Their Bilateral Relations?| MENAFN.COM

Wednesday, 22 March 2023 04:50 GMT

Can Canada, India Reset Their Bilateral Relations?

(MENAFN- Asia Times)

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly is on a two-day visit to New Delhi, and both sides hope to cast a reset in their bilateral relations. These have been rather lukewarm despite many enduring linkages of their past histories, politics and people.

Two things immediately make this visit more than promising for both sides.

First is Canada's indo-pacific strategy that was issued last November. While it calls China“an increasingly disruptive global power,” it describes India as Canada's“critical partner” for its regional and global objectives. This is music to Indian ears. Indeed, this 23-page report mentions India 27 times, underlining their“shared tradition of democracy and pluralism, a common commitment to a rules-based international system.”

These words of bonhomie and their driving structural factors deepening their connotations become even more revealing in face this visit's second interesting backdrop.

The Trudeau visit

The second reason this visit is significant is that it is being seen as an inflection point in the gradual U-turn in India-Canada relations that had hit their nadir during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's week-long visit in February 2018.

In spite of clarifications from both sides, Trudeau had expressed how that visit had exposed him to“blaring, negative wall-to-wall international ridicule” and even grumbled that he might never visit India again.

That controversy had erupted from a photograph showing the PM's wife Sophie Trudeau, at the couple's first reception in Mumbai, standing next to jaspal atwal , a Canadian national of Indian origin who was linked to the Khalistan (Sikh separatist) movement and in 1987 was sentenced to 20 years by a Canadian court for his role in an attempted murder of an Indian provincial minister on a visit to Canada.

Even media of Canada's closest friends, the United States and the United Kingdom, called Trudeau's India visit a“total disaster” and a“facile, foolish fiasco” for“being snubbed by his Indian counterpart” and so on.

The gradual U-turn

India's Ministry of External Affairs, having first expressed dismay at such a lapse, quickly sought to play it down, saying there was nothing unlawful about Atwal's presence. However, the incident resulted in India-Canada interactions coming to a near standstill , and it was to take long time to recover.

Eighteen months later, the prime ministers of Canada and India were to meet again informally in August 2019 at the Group of Seven Summit in Biarritz, France, where India was invited as a special guest while Canada is a full member.

Soon, the world faced the Covid-19 pandemic, which showcased India disbursing large quantities of hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol and then vaccines the world over, including to Canada. This period saw Trudeau and Modi speaking twice – in April 2020 and February 2021 – on their shared fight against the pandemic but also on various other regional and global matters, indicating a thaw in their bilateral equations.

Their body language was especially warm during their last two brief bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the June 2022 g7 summit in Elmau, Germany, and the November 2022 group of twenty Summit in Bali, setting the stage for a possible reset in their bilateral relations.

This is where this week's visit by Joly carries the promise of making a fresh start by setting the stage for Prime Minister Trudeau's second visit to India in September to join the G20 Summit to be hosted by India. India sees that G20 summit as a historic opportunity for a major reset in its foreign relations, and it is likely to find Canada a willing partner for such a jumpstart.

Newfound enthusiasm

This newfound enthusiasm was visible in the press release issued in Canberra on the eve of the Canadian foreign minister's visit to India. Its opening lines read:“Because of its strategic, economic and demographic importance in the world, India is a critical partner in Canada's pursuit of its objectives under our Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and on the global stage.”

That press release underlines how the rise in importance of the Indo-Pacific region has created“opportunities for prosperity, economic growth and better-paying jobs across Canada. From Cleantech to critical minerals and education program, there is a demand in India for what Canadians make, and grow, and the services we provide.”

So after her meeting with Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Monday, Joly reiterated the same sentiment on twitter :“India's growing strategic, economic and demographic importance makes it a critical partner for Canada in the Indo-Pacific. In turn, Canada can be a reliable supplier of critical minerals, a stronger partner in the green transition, as well as a major investor.”

Her meetings with business leaders and civil society are expected to strengthen constituencies for an even stronger, more open and prosperous partnership.

A similar tweet from Jaishankar“recognized the centrality of people to people ties to the expansion of our [India-Canada] cooperation,” which perhaps also alludes to“miles” they have to walk in materializing their optimistic visions. The next step would now be to identify and address their serious limitations.

For instance, while China remains a shared challenge that brings them together, China also remains largest trading partner of India and Canada's second-largest trading partner after the United States. This should make the early conclusions of their long-pending Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), under negotiations from 2009, their top focus.

In fact, in their Canada-India Strategic Dialogue the two foreign ministers reportedly underlined how they looked forward to their proposed Early Progress Trade Agreement (EPTA) before they finalize their CEPA.


To begin with, India is Canada's 13th-largest trading partner, but bilateral trade that had reached US$10.1 billion for 2019 faced a downswing in the pandemic years.

Likewise Canada has made foreign direct investment of just $4.9 billion, though its institutional investments, especially its pension funds, have reached $70 billion. But now, with Canada's expressed focus on the Indo-Pacific region – with this region's rapidly growing $35 trillion gross domestic product – this promises to boost their bilateral trade and commerce.

As regards India's track record on free-trade agreements, it has signed 13 such deals so far, with the most recent being those with the United Arab Emirates and Australia that became effective respectively in May and December 2022. India is currently engaged in similar negotiations with Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States.

It was in January 2009 that Canada and India started their exploratory talks for a CEPA and initial years saw several rounds of talks at various levels. Their first Ministerial Dialogue for Trade and Investment (MDTI) was held in September 2010 in Ottawa, and by their third round in 2016 they had identified energy, agriculture, education and infrastructure as areas for cooperation.

Given the disastrous 2018 India visit by Trudeau and the snail's pace of negotiations, the fifth MDTI round held in March 2022 agreed to re-launch their CEPA negotiations, but both sides will have to work hard to harness their historic opportunities and materialize their visions.

Indian students

The Indian diaspora, and lately students, have come to be another irritant in the two countries' interactions. With 183,000 Indians studying in its academic institutions as of September 2022, Canada has come to be the second most popular foreign destination for Indian students.

In 2021, this figure was put at 217,410 and the first half of 2022 saw Canada granting permits to 82,810 Indian students. Despite administrative hiccups, Canada has remained receptive to Indian immigrants.

Indeed, the past decade had witnessed an exponential growth in international students coming to Canada. The flip side of this expansion was an explosion of profit-driven education entrepreneurs on both sides.

This has seen a large number of new institutions being set up in Canada to accommodate foreign students, up to 40% of total seats, taking their tuition revenues from C$1.5 billion in 2007 to $6.9 billion (about US$5.1 billion) for 2018 before the pandemic forced a short hiatus.

The pandemic was to exacerbate challenges of this expansion with campuses not fully prepared for online teaching and other protocols. This also challenged Canada's capacities in health care , housing and in providing employment opportunities for immigrants.

This is raising doubts about the promise of better life that attracts young post-secondary Indian students in hoards to join short-term diploma courses across mushrooming Canadian institutions.

Only last week, the Times Higher Education accused Canada's small private colleges overlooking immigration rules to pursue foreign tuition dollars aggressively.

The list of challenges does not end here. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs press release on the two foreign ministers' meeting on Monday mentioned recent tension over vandalism by suspected pro-Khalistan groups in Canada. So no doubt this visible bonhomie makes a great start, yet both sides have to really work hard to emerge as enduring partners.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.


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