Bilateral relations between Canada and India in the twentieth century have been tumultuous. It is only in the twenty-first century that Stephen Harper’s ‘principled’ foreign policy with a focus on ‘values’ in the early years of his government at least notionally eschewed China, and gave some importance to India. This led to Harper and Modi laying the groundwork for a ‘strategic partnership’ that was signed by the two countries in 2015. As India gains in economic strength and is increasingly becoming a significant part of the global supply chains, it is undoubtedly a country that cannot be ignored in Asia and the recent shift in the Canadian and Indian relationship is a reflection of that reality.
A History of Linkages
Ever since its independence, India has shared many common interests and perspectives with Canada in international affairs. Both countries were members of the Commonwealth with similar governing structures and a desire to carve their niche internationally. This desire for an independent global identity only strengthened their resolve during the Cold War years. Similar human values and democratic institutions put Canada and India on the same wavelength. Efforts were made by the Canadian government to develop an economic and trade strategy towards India from the mid-1990s. The relations by the 1990s were moving back on track with attempts made by the Canadian government to increase private sector interest in India to enable them to pursue a coherent economic strategy in India, resulting in a publication titled Focus India in 1995 and a ‘Team Canada’ mission to India.
In the relations between Canada and India, bilateral trade had seen a slow and steady increase from $1.2 billion in 1997 to $1.7 billion in 2000 (Statistics Canada). So much so, the early twenty-first century saw attempts by Canada to ‘re-engage’ with India. By 2015, the two countries had signed a ‘strategic partnership’. What explains this strategic partnership?
Explaining India’s Approach towards Canada
India has historically displayed an abundance of caution in the international arena. Its policy of non-alignment especially during the Cold War years and its aversion to an alliance indicated its leaning towards autonomous decision-making. The end of the Cold War saw India using ‘strategic partnerships as a tool of foreign policy resulting in a proliferation of ‘strategic partnerships with several countries. Despite its extensive use by India, the concept has not yet been clearly defined. It has been argued that a strategic partnership because of its lack of conceptual clarity gives India the flexibility and freedom to formulate and shape its agenda and agreement, depending on its requirements. This implies that strategic partnerships are pragmatic and also to an extent, may explain the range of India’s strategic partners from the United States of America to Rwanda. India did not even have a functioning embassy in Rwanda at the time it signed the partnership (Business Standard 2017). Each strategic partnership is thus very useful as its meaning and implication differ with each bilateral relationship. It may even be argued, therefore, that it is better not to have a definitive criterion to describe it, as it is context and country-specific.
One of the most transformative changes in Indian foreign policy took place from the 1990s with the end of the Cold War. India’s entry into a globalised era and its efforts at making rapid economic progress were also directed by its goal of achieving an international ‘status’. The dynamics of power politics and the change in the foreign policy orientation of newly liberalised and ‘emerging economies’ like India, as well as the remarkable economic progress of countries like China, gave a twist to previous foreign policy approaches that did not require complete consonance in value constructs between partners to become effective.
This reasoning fits in very well with India’s outlook towards Canada. India’s interest in Canada is not simply value-laden but dependent on each issue and its material interests. India has been willing to become partners with countries even when it was confined to having similar goals only in certain areas. Thus, while there are many similar core values shared by Canada and India such as democratic institutions, multiculturalism, or peace. What seems more feasible for the two countries is to cooperate economically/commercially with each other. This economic cooperation could even act as a buffer on political or security issues.
‘Re-engaging’ with India and Challenges Ahead
There was an absence of any visits by an Indian head of state to Canada for about four decades until the 2015 visit of Modi. This was a significant overture by India to warm up relations with Canada. While India took giant strides and made its mark globally in the twenty-first century, the 2015 visit indicated that the two nations were willing to make up for the four decades.
During the visit, a nuclear energy deal was signed with Canada which ended the ban of nuclear material exports to India from Canada with Canada agreeing to supply uranium to India for the next five years. Stephen Harper and Modi signed assurances of cooperation on civil aviation, education, and health, apart from the supply of uranium. Assurances were also given that the two countries would move towards a Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (BIPPA) and the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). The proposed agreements on trade and investments could not be successfully concluded. With Trudeau’s visit to India, the two countries did sign six other bilateral agreements including agreeing to encourage private sectors to make investments and export Canadian pulses to India among others (Prakash 2020).
There is not much disagreement on whether Canada and India are compatible as strategic partners. As stated earlier, both countries have a lot in common in terms of values and are members of groupings such as G20 and Commonwealth with high potential economic complementarity. Not only does the Indian diaspora in Canada comprise about 5 percent of the population, but Indians also occupy important political and professional positions. Moreover, there has been a rapid increase in the number of Indian students going to Canada for higher education, and several educational institutes and universities in Canada and India are collaborating on projects and have signed agreements.
While these realities may contribute towards building trust, many concrete areas could result in mutually beneficial interactions such as science and technology, innovation, biotechnology and information technology, environment, waste and water management, energy, space, and others. There have been several high-level meetings including among others the visit to Canada in December 2019 of Indian external affairs minister, Jaishankar and the former prime minister of Canada Stephen Harper in January 2020. Even virtual/online meetings have been held during the pandemic such as the one in November 2020 to further discuss CEPA and BIPPA. The two prime ministers too have had several conversations to discuss possibilities of mutual exchange and assistance during the COVID pandemic (High Commission of India, Ottawa 2021).
Some commentators have argued that the pandemic has given Canada and India additional reasons to revive trade talks. The pandemic has resulted in the widening of Canada’s trade imbalance with India from March 2020. According to the 2020 data, trade with India fallen further to less than one percent of Canada’s total (Bharti 2021). While this kind of slowdown is natural given the situation, it can be used as an excuse to kickstart further negotiations between the two countries to help stabilise their respective economies. The G7 foreign ministers’ meeting held in May 2021 in London provided the perfect opportunity for a meeting on the sidelines of the foreign ministers of Canada and India to discuss improvements in trade.
For India, strategic partnerships have been a way to expand its influence, reach, and economic development. It has more than thirty such partnerships but what is imperative here is the intent in each partnership with an attainable goal. In order to expand its resources and capabilities, India needs to be flexible in its interaction and objectives which may vary with each country. As a scholar has pointed out, India’s approach to alliances has been “pragmatic and motivated by a concern for maintaining its own foreign policy autonomy” (Mehta 2009: 221). On the other hand, a central theme in Canadian diplomacy as a ‘middle power’ has been a “search for partners”. While Canada has sought to fulfill this need through Western alliances in the past, in the twenty-first century it seeks to “engage in select and measured forms of like-minded partnerships” as they counterbalance deficiencies of alliances by focusing their energies on an “issue-specific basis” (Cooper 2007: 57, 39). Canada and India already have common ideals and respect for similar world views. What needs to be strengthened is their economic bilateral relations as there is immense potential that has yet to be explored. The CEPA and BIPPA negotiations are a step in the right direction and would prove mutually advantageous once finalised.
Bharti, Bianca (2021), “Canada has Bungled Trade Deals with India in the Past. Could COVID and China Finally Unite the Two?” Financial Post, 7 May 2021.
Bhatia, Rajiv (2018), “India-Canada Visit: Post-Trudeau Visit: The Road Ahead”, Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, 13(1): 11-16.
Business Standard (2017), “India, Rwanda become Strategic Partners”, Business Standard, 10 January 2017. Online web: https://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/india-rwanda-become-strategic-partners-117011000718_1.html. Accessed on 9 June 2021.
Cooper, Andrew (2007), “The Search for Like-Minded Partners in Canadian Diplomacy”, In Raj and Nafey (eds.), Canada’s Global Engagements and Relations with India (New Delhi: Manak).
Delvoie, Louis A. (2007), “Canada and India: A Roller Coaster Ride”. In Raj and Nafey (eds.), Canada’s Global Engagements and Relations with India (New Delhi: Manak).
High Commission of India in Canada (2021), India-Canada Bilateral Brief. Online web: https://www.hciottawa.gov.in/. Accessed on 6 June 2021.
Mehta, Pratap Bhanu (2009), “Still Under Nehru’s Shadow? The Absence of Foreign Policy Frameworks in India”, India Review, 8(3): 209-233.
Prakash, Vishnu (2020), “Turning over a New Leaf in India-Canada Relations”, India Writes Network, April 8, 2020. Online Web: https://www.indiawrites.org/india-and-the-world/turning-over-a-new-leaf-in-india-canada-relations/. Accessed on 8 June 2021.
Statistics Canada, Canadian International Merchandise Trade, Ottawa. Various years.