May 29, 2023
May 29, 2023
by Ryan Touhey
Canada and India have been reluctant dance partners in decades past for reasons ranging from a heated disagreement on nuclear non-proliferation to Cold War-era divergences to name but two. It is only in recent years that Ottawa has expressed an interest to make New Delhi one of its international priorities and is seeking to re-develop a historically neglected relationship.
India has reciprocated this sentiment, although its interest has appeared more restrained. The Conservative Party government in Canada has despatched a steady stream of cabinet ministers to India since 2006 and has bolstered Canada's trade presence in India, as illustrated through the expansion of the Export Development Canada (EDC) presence.
A Canadian veto at either body could have scrapped that deal of vital importance to Washington and New Delhi. So, this was a historic step, and it soon led to suggestions that once again Canada and India might become partners in civil nuclear cooperation and trade.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first visit to India served as the most recent example that Ottawa wishes to strengthen the relationship. The visit received an unusual degree of coverage in the Canadian media. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), CTV, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, to name only a few outlets, all covered the three-day visit extensively. This coverage is positive in that at the best of times it is difficult to find news of India in the Canadian media and it is important for Canadians to consider what a rising India means for their country.
On the other hand, the media attention given to the prime minister's trip has also perhaps displayed the distorted expectations of what Canada and India can and should reasonably expect to achieve at this stage in their relationship at the federal level. It has been frequently commented among the Canadian news networks, print, and online media that the objectives of the trip were to sign a civil nuclear deal and a possible free trade deal.
One columnist with the Globe and Mail went so far as to suggest that if Ottawa "did not wish to sell uranium and build reactors in a country with nuclear weapons that refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty' then "the renaissance of Indo-Canadian relations will be dead at birth.'
Columnist Geoffrey Simpson wrote in the Friday Nov 20 edition of the Globe and Mail that while a "series of public relations coups' were scored, "substantively, however, the trip was a disappointment, even a bust.'
These assessments are largely hyperbolic and this visit should not have been framed in such a limited context. If policymakers in Ottawa fed this spin, then they too need to be rapped on the knuckles.
The importance of this trip, in many regards, is symbolic denoting a new era between the two countries. The aftermath should be used as a chance to lay the practical groundwork to develop consistent linkages and the political interest that have been missing for decades.
A survey of the main Indian newspapers suggests that the Indian media gave limited attention to this visit. And therein lies a key problem. Canada has to address a visibility gap in India and press its case as to why the India government and its peoples should be interested in Canada and the outcome of such visits.
A good start will be for the Canadian government to take a page from its allies, and trade competitors, such as Australia, France, and Germany and develop a public diplomacy profile that has been sorely lacking since 1947 when both countries established formal ties.
The visit will have further established a rapport between prime ministers Harper and Singh and enhanced contact at the critical bureaucratic level. And hopefully the visit will have bolstered Harper's interest in India.
The trick now for this Canadian government is to avoid being boxed into defining the success of this relationship with India in simplistic terms on whether or not we immediately achieve a nuclear deal or a free trade agreement after decades of neglect.
(An expert on India-Canada relations, Ryan Touhey is assistant professor of history at St. Jerome's University/University of Waterloo in Canada. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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