Trudeau’s India Visit Highlights A Wasted Opportunity for Canada

Justin Trudeau’s visit has only managed to draw attention to Ottawa’s soft pedalling on Sikh separatism. 

4 min read
Canadian PM Justin Trudeau on his visit to India. Image used for representational purposes.

It’s quite extraordinary. For a politician who is deemed to have ‘rock star’ like status, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is hardly making any ripples in India. And this is a country where celebrities get front page coverage in newspapers.

If at all, the coverage so far of this visit has been negative which underlines the challenges that Canada today faces in enhancing ties with India.

Blow Hot, Blow Cold

There is a lot of focus on the ostensible ‘snub’ that the Modi government has bestowed on the Canadian prime minister’s visit so far. Unlike a courtesy he had extended to some world leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not receive his Canadian counterpart at the airport.

Instead, Trudeau was received by the Union Minister of State for Agriculture Gajendra Shekhawat and was also only received by district officials when he visited the Taj Mahal in Agra. Though the Indian government has insisted that normal diplomatic protocol has been extended to Trudeau, it is clear that something is amiss in the wider bilateral relationship.

If at all the Modi government has been signalling its displeasure with certain aspects of Trudeau’s policies, it is within its rights as Ottawa has also been sending confused signals.

The recent turn of events on the Indo-Canadian front is quite unfortunate as the Indian prime minister had reached out to Canada in a big way in 2015. Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper and Modi had tried to lay the foundations for a strategic partnership during Modi’s visit to Canada three years ago after decades of neglect, hoping to reap the benefits of geopolitical convergence.

Little Interest in Canada, Even as India Spreads Wings

In the past decade, even as New Delhi expanded its global footprint, there was little interest in Canada. Modi wanted to alter that with his trip in 2015 which was the first to Canada by India’s head of government in 42 years. And he secured a landmark nuclear energy deal with Canada for the supply of 3.2 million kilograms of uranium over a five-year period, formally ending a long-standing moratorium on Canadian exports of nuclear materials to India.

In the 1970s, India used Canadian technology in its nuclear program. With India being the second-fastest growing market for nuclear fuel, this deal was crucial for the Canadian producer Cameco Corporation as the supplier of uranium. And it came 45 years after Canada, under the then prime minister Pierre Trudeau, banned uranium exports to India.

Bilateral trade has been slow to develop with India accounting for only 2 percent of Canada's global trade. Free trade negotiations which began in 2010 are not going anywhere. Yet India remains a critical market for Canadian products such as lentils, peas, lumber and potash, especially as India remains the world’s fastest growing economy.

With over 1.2 million people of Indian origin, Canada remains an important destination for Indians. Being an open economy, it has continued to attract not only Indian capital but also Indian professionals and students. “India has the strength; what is needed is opportunity,” Modi had said while addressing an estimated over 10,000-strong Indian diaspora at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto during his 2015 visit, underlining the role that the Indian diaspora can play in creating these opportunities.

New Delhi had been trying to cultivate the diaspora and give them a stake in the Indian economic regeneration.


Canada’s Wasted Opportunity in India

On the security front, a stable balance of power in the wider Indo-Pacific will serve both Indian and Canadian interests. The Arctic, where Canada has significant stakes, is growing in salience. As the recently released Chinese White Paper on the Arctic makes clear, Beijing is intent on challenging the extant status quo pertaining to the region. Closer institutional collaboration and intelligence sharing on tackling terrorism and extremism is also the need of the hour.

And yet, all that Trudeau’s visit has managed to draw focus on is Ottawa’s ‘soft pedalling’ on the issue of Sikh separatism. The Modi government has managed to convey a message of political unity on a matter of supreme national interest. It is likely that Trudeau will only talk in generalities on the issue, defining the domestic support for separatism in the garb of “freedom of expression.”

And this will not be enough to assuage Indian concerns. It seems as if Ottawa is intent on wasting an opportunity to engage with India. It may have its reasons, but then New Delhi won’t be deemed remiss if it decides to ignore Canada in its foreign policy calculus.

(Harsh V Pant is Distinguished Fellow and Head of Strategic Studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(The Quint, in association with BitGiving, has launched a crowdfunding campaign for an 8-month-old who was raped in Delhi on 28 January 2018. The baby girl, who we will refer to as 'Chhutki', was allegedly raped by her 28-year-old cousin when her parents were away. She has been discharged from AIIMS hospital after undergoing three surgeries, but needs more medical treatment in order to heal completely. Her parents hail from a low-income group and have stopped going to work so that they can take care of the baby. You can help cover Chhutki's medical expenses and secure her future. Every little bit counts. Click here to donate.)

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