Aftab Ahmed: Canada needs to do better with India, and fast
Ottawa has often frustrated New Delhi by attempting to straddle difficult issues.
By: Aftab Ahmed
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will travel to New Delhi for the G20 Summit in September. It will be the Prime Minister’s first visit to India since his ill-fated excursion in 2018, which set off a political firestorm back in Canada and did serious harm to the bilateral relationship. Five years later, where does this relationship stand, and what does the future hold?
The government is admittedly probably not overly focused on India right now. Allegations in the press in recent weeks have focused on Canada’s relationship with China, and the prospect of Chinese intelligence operations aimed at interfering in Canada’s democracy. (There was further breaking news on that story even as this piece was being prepared for publication.)
While the government will necessarily be focused on this unfolding story, which has both geopolitical and domestic political implications and risks for the Trudeau government, it cannot afford to ignore India. Narendra Modi presents a double-edged sword for our prime minister. On one hand, India’s maverick leader is an ideal partner to help support Canada’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly as a counterweight to China’s strength. On the other, his right-wing nationalist government has developed a nasty reputation for persecuting religious minorities. A recent high-profile BBC documentary, which exposed Modi’s principal role in the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat riots, reinforces this argument. Within a few days of its release, New Delhi invoked emergency laws to ban the documentary in India — continuing a precarious trend of censoring its media landscape.
In this environment, Ottawa faces a dilemma: How can Canada bolster ties with India in critical areas such as trade and defence, while simultaneously promoting democratic values in a country whose BJP government is displaying markedly anti-democratic tendencies?
On paper, Global Affairs Canada seems determined to improve bilateral ties as part of a blueprint to enhance Canadian presence in the region. India was provided its own section in the recently published Indo-Pacific Strategy — a recognition of New Delhi’s potential role as a counter-weight to Beijing’s continued rise as a disruptive power.
With a population close to 1.42 billion (soon to surpass China as the world’s largest), a nominal GDP of $4 trillion, and a throng of students arriving in Canada every year (over 650,000 in the past decade), cozying up to New Delhi makes sense. But how does Ottawa go about this?
It will not be easy. Historically, Indo-Canadian relations have been erratic, and Ottawa has often frustrated New Delhi by attempting to straddle difficult issues. For example, Canada’s inability to provide clarity on the question of Sikh separatism, a movement born in India but growing rapidly in Canada, has become the Achilles heel of the relationship.
For New Delhi, Sikh separatism potentially sows the seeds for national security threats on domestic soil and elsewhere. The infamous Air India attack of 1985, planned and executed by Canadian Sikh separatists, remains a stark reminder of the security risks posed by extremist factions within this movement.
Trudeau’s position on Sikh separatism has been vague (and expectedly so): He supports the idea of a united India — but has indicated that political dissidents, including Sikh separatists, have the right to assemble freely and express their democratic opinions within Canadian borders.
Over 100,000 people took part in one of the world’s largest referendums for an independent Khalistan last September in Brampton, Ontario. It reflected a vision for a self-governing Sikh homeland in the Indian state of Punjab. The Modi government has demanded that Canada crack down on these “dangerous” sentiments. Once again, this has backed Trudeau into a corner, with no easy exit in sight.
Beyond the Khalistan issue, Canada’s economic ties with India remain limited. Between 2001 and 2019, exports to India grew by 12 per cent. Imports increased at an annual rate of 10 per cent. But these numbers only tell half the story. With New Delhi stepping up trade relations with emerging Asian middle-powers since the 1990s, Canada started losing market share in the rapidly growing Indian economy. Canada’s share of two-way trade in goods with India dropped from 1.02 per cent in 2001 to 0.81 per cent in 2021. In short, Ottawa has been missing an opportunity to strengthen investment and commercial ties with a country expected to be the world’s third-largest economy by 2030.
Over the past decade, the two countries have been negotiating a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). This is expected to boost bilateral trade by $ 6 billion to $8.8 billion. It will also produce a GDP gain of nearly $3 billion for Canada by 2035. The conclusion of this agreement must be a priority for Ottawa. This deal will implicitly define Canada’s Indo-Pacific trade diversification strategies. Delays are only pushing Canada further back in the burgeoning Indian market.
Defence relations between the two countries are equally modest. While the Indo-Pacific strategy boldly states that Canada will enhance its naval presence in the region, current defence collaboration with India is virtually non-existent. Joint anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden represent the only exception. This needs to change.
The Bay of Bengal, an embayment of the Indian Ocean, could be one potential area of cooperation for the two countries. This body of water possesses tremendous geostrategic importance. As Beijing seeks to expand its reach beyond the South China Sea and support its Belt and Road ambitions, the West will need to pay greater attention to this maritime region. Canada should explore defence cooperations with India in the Bay to support its security and economic objectives.
Amidst all this, India’s ambiguous stance on the Ukraine-Russia war will pose challenges to any Canadian attempts to enhance bilateral relations. India has refused to condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion, and has increased its imports of Russian oil in the face of Western sanctions. However, Modi has recently spoken out more forcefully about Moscow’s aggression, telling Putin that now is not the time for war — no doubt reflecting New Delhi’s concerns about the conflict’s impact on the global economy and India’s relations with other powers.
But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. If the West, including Canada, accelerates its efforts to court India, this may help New Delhi see where its true interests lie — especially with respect to China.
The ultimate success of Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy will depend to a considerable degree on strengthening Indo-Canadian ties. To do this, the two countries will need to put their fraught history in the rear-view mirror, tackle contentious issues like Sikh separatism head-on, and seize opportunities in the defence and trade realms.
It will be a difficult path, and Canada will need to show a delicate touch given the current anti-democratic proclivities of the Modi government. India's foreign minister pledged to strengthen ties with Ottawa during Melanie Joly's recent visit to New Delhi. The hope is that these words will translate into concrete action.
The truth of the matter is that Canada clearly has a greater need for India than India has for Canada. Prime Minister Trudeau will have his work cut out for him in September. But in many respects, there is nowhere to go but up.
Aftab Ahmed is a Master of Public Policy candidate with the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, where he is the editor-in-chief of the policy newsletter The Bell. Aftab is a freelance columnist for the Bangladeshi English-language newspapers, The Daily Star and Dhaka Tribune — and his interests lie in global affairs, international relations, and political trends in the Indo-Pacific.
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