What to expect from Trudeau’s first official trip to India

From trade to counter terrorism to civil society partnerships, here are the areas in need of greater collaboration between the two countries.

By: /
February 14, 2018
India presidential palace
India's presidential palace is pictured in New Delhi, India. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Justin Trudeau, Canada’s 23rd prime minister, was 11 years old when he visited India in 1983, accompanying his father, Pierre Trudeau, the 15th prime minister. As the present incumbent prepares to travel to India again, he is certain to discover a different and dynamic nation.

For peoples of the two countries, what truly matters is whether this important visit will succeed in making the India-Canada relationship stronger and deeper.

From February 17-23, Trudeau will visit five cities: the two metros, Delhi and Mumbai, and three other towns (Agra, Amritsar and Ahmedabad). This will afford him an opportunity to appreciate India’s cultural diversity and economic vibrancy. To Indians, this will be a rare exposure to a young and charismatic leader of a developed nation. Trudeau is assured of a red carpet welcome in India, although his popularity at home has been dented to some degree.

The visit’s high point will be the summit-level talks between Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The former may find the 67-year-old host energetic and on the go — and yes, he is certainly dedicated to adding real substance to the India-Canada strategic partnership. Modi revealed this passion during a three-day visit to Canada in April 2015 hosted by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

India-Canada: mutually important?

Quite often, a basic question is posed by experts as well as citizens: do India and Canada, situated on different sides of the globe, matter to each other? To put it another way: what do Canada, a rich country of 36 million people, and India, a fast growing economy with a population of 1.25 billion, have in common? ‘A mix of shared values and common interests’ would be an apt answer, coming from those who understand both countries well. 

Historical bonds, experience as democracies, the Commonwealth connection, and the presence of a 1.2 million-strong Indian diaspora representing three percent of the Canadian population combine to make the two countries relevant to each other. Hard interests tend to make this relevance more meaningful. The two nations are united in their goal to ensure that the world is governed by a rules-based order and heads towards peace and prosperity.

Economic complementarities have their own compelling logic. India is a huge and increasingly enticing market, whereas Canada is a rich source of capital and technology, energy and innovation. As chair of G7 this year, Canada has a leadership role to play in shaping the richest nations’ approach to the world. As the second-largest economy of the BRICS, India represents a significant pole among the rising economies. Being members of G20, both India and Canada are devising close collaboration for influencing the global agenda of stable development in these turbulent times. Additionally, as ardent supporters of the United Nations system, they could strive harder to develop a common strategy for its reform. 

This week, Canada and India will have the opportunity to impart a fresh momentum to bilateral cooperation. Modi’s dialogue with Harper had created a special moment for Canada-India ties, but it slipped away due to the change of government in Ottawa. Trudeau’s visit comes three years into his four-year term. With both prime ministers facing elections in 2019, they have a narrow window to make their personal contribution to lifting the relationship to a new level. How might they do it?

What to expect

Knowledgeable sources in Delhi maintain that a new convergence in the worldviews of India and Canada needs to be explored and delineated with some precision. So far, Canada’s foreign policy priorities have been the United States, the European Union and China, while India has focused attention on its neighbours, its ties with the US and China and, lately, changing power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific. Canada has a legitimate ambition to play and expand its global role. Perhaps a most prudent way to attempt this is to project its identity as a Pacific power. New Delhi is inclined to support this, but it expects Ottawa to remember that Asia has multiple centres of power, not just one (China).

In fact, China’s assertive behaviour, militarization of the South China Sea and coercive diplomacy on its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (an infrastructure development campaign led by President Xi Jinping) have created pockets of discontent in Asia and elsewhere — and the arc is increasing. Canadians need to factor it all wisely. A pivot to India could help them in re-balancing their Asia policy. Modi-Trudeau discussions are expected to be wide-ranging, covering West Asia, India’s neighbours like Afghanistan, Maldives and Myanmar, and the ASEAN region.

"Canada has a legitimate ambition to play and expand its global role. Perhaps a most prudent way to attempt this is to project its identity as a Pacific power."

For its part, India needs to draw suitable lessons from the fast-burgeoning China-Canada ties. As John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador in Beijing, noted recently, when it comes to China, Canada wants “more, more, more.” He observed: “In both directions, Canada wants more trade, more investment, more tourists, more students, and more exchanges in every area from health to defence to culture to sports.” Canadian diplomats in India are, likewise, beginning to see the immense opportunities available in India. Trudeau’s visit is expected to sharpen clarity and result in crafting a roadmap.

A practical strategy to counter terrorism is likely to engage the two prime ministers. India rightly views itself as a major victim of international terrorism, especially cross-border terrorism. A very fortunate country in this respect, Canada will undoubtedly receive a detailed briefing on Pakistan’s role and the current stalemate in India-Pakistan dialogue. Trudeau may perhaps also sense New Delhi’s dissatisfaction over what some Indian sources view as inadequate counter-terrorism cooperation extended by Ottawa.

On economic relations, progress has occurred in recent years, but it is blended with a shared dissatisfaction over the current size of trade (valued at US$ six billion in 2016) and cumulative investment flows both ways (amounting to US$ 2.9 billion). Happily, Canadian sovereign funds continue to expand their presence in the Indian equity market. For the past several years, the two governments have been working to finalize two key agreements, one relating to trade (the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) and the other relating to investment (the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement). Whether the Trudeau visit will pave the way for the finalization of at least one of them remains uncertain. Indications are that, with or without these agreements, the two governments may give a new fillip to extensive promotion measures that strengthen the economic pillar dramatically. 

Education has become a far more promising area of collaboration than before. The presence of 100,000 Indian students in Canadian universities and colleges is a welcome phenomenon. Indian tourists have discovered Canada as a holiday destination; 215,000 tourists visited Canada in 2016. Air Canada’s direct flights linking cities in the two countries have brought them closer together. A 14-hour non-stop flight has emerged as a vital link between homes across India and Canada.

Other areas where bilateral cooperation could flourish further are energy, environment and climate change, infrastructure and urban development, innovation and civil nuclear cooperation. What specific measures are devised during the prime ministerial dialogue will be watched with interest by all friends of India and Canada.

Three ways to move beyond high-level talks

By their nature, India-Canada relations will be strengthened further if the non-governmental sectors of the two societies are encouraged to enhance their mutual engagement. Three suggestions merit consideration in this context.

First, business-to-business ties should be accorded a high priority. All necessary steps should be taken so that multi-dimensional economic linkages are created and sustained.

Second, people-to-people interactions should be expanded on an enduring basis. Apart from promoting tourism vigorously in both directions, special interest groups such as students, youth, women, artists and writers should be helped to connect with each other on a wider scale. Media, too, can help and sustain the process.

Third, Canada and India have been remarkably absent from each other’s strategic community scene. It is now time to change this by facilitating connections and conversations among select think tanks. Their dialogues will bridge knowledge gaps and produce inputs for a new policy framework, deepening the strategic partnership.

Prime ministers Trudeau and Modi have a rare opportunity this month to strengthen the mutual engagement of the two countries, but they cannot do it alone. As they look to produce a substantive outcome from this trip, they must be helped by these important segments of society.