Trudeau in India

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‘There are some fundamental issues that have been weighing on this relationship for a long time that make it hard to take it to the next level,’ says trade consultant Eric Miller.

Following a G20 summit in New Delhi that featured seemingly frosty exchanges between the Canadian and Indian prime ministers, former diplomats and foreign policy observers say the bilateral relationship is at its lowest point, compounded by Ottawa’s decision to put a hold on trade talks.

The hostile nature of the bilateral relationship complicates Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy, since India was highlighted as a “critical partner” in the $2.3-billion plan.

The visit featured an awkward handshake during which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) pulled away from Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. Trudeau also chose not to attend Modi’s leaders’ dinner at the summit, according to a Canadian Press report

The two met on the margins of the summit, but didn’t hold a formal bilateral meeting like Modi did with many other leaders. The readouts from the talk feature stark differences. The Indian readout highlighted concerns over the presence of the Khalistan movement in Canada, and allegations that secessionists are promoting violence against Indian diplomats and the Indian community in Canada. The Canadian readout focused on Trudeau raising “the importance of respecting the rule of law, democratic principles, and national sovereignty.” Ottawa has previously raised concerns regarding Indian foreign interference.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the personal relationship between Trudeau and Modi is “terrible,” remarking that neither of Trudeau’s visits to India—including his infamous 2018 trip—have been greeted with success

Following the visit, Robertson said it will be up to Canada’s High Commission in India to put the pieces back together.

“It’s foot diplomacy, going from office to office to try to restore relations,” he said.

He said implementing an Indo-Pacific strategy without having cordial relations with India is a tall order.

“You can’t do it,” he said, remarking that ties with India should be “natural” for Canada given the deep freeze of its relationship with China, and India’s link to Canada through its diaspora community.

Part of the strategy was to reach an early progress trade agreement, but movement has been slow dealing with India’s notoriously difficult trade negotiators, as previously reported by The Hill TimesThe Canadian Press reported that Ottawa has paused trade discussions. Neither Trudeau nor International Trade Minister Mary Ng (Markham–Thornhill, Ont.) has directly explained why that decision was made.

Saskatchewan Trade Minister Jeremy Harrison criticized the federal government in a Sept. 8 letter to Ng for not using the G20 summit to forward trade negotiations.

Robertson said reaching a trade deal with India won’t happen as long as Modi is prime minister, unless the bilateral relationship can be improved.

Trade consultant Eric Miller, president of Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, said the discord in trade talks reveals issues at the negotiation table as well as bilateral irritants between the two countries.

“Why is there a pause? It’s because these things are hard. Why are they hard? It’s the fundamental issues of agriculture versus temporary entry. They’re also hard because there are some serious unresolved issues between Canada and India.”

Miller said the two countries need to find ways to deal with these differences, including India’s concerns about the Khalistan movement.

“You have these deeply fundamental issues and it’s not just about economics,” he said. “There are some fundamental issues that have been weighing on this relationship for a long time that make it hard to take it to the next level.”

Carleton University professor Vivek Dehejia, who researches India’s economy and international trade, said Canada-India bilateral relations are at their “lowest ebb” in years.

“It’s become clear that there’s not much personal rapport or chemistry between Modi and Trudeau,” he said.

Dehejia said the news that trade talks were paused, as well as the spotlight on foreign interference, meant that even before the summit began on Sept. 9, there were muted prospects for a successful visi

He said the timing for the pause in trade talks is “peculiar,” and has “not been really well explained.”

“I find the recent pause problematic given that both sides say they want an agreement,” he said. “And why pause it now after just restarting it?”

He said under the relationship’s current configuration, the signs point to a continued deep freeze as long as Trudeau and Modi both remain in power.

Dehejia said the rhetoric of India being a “critical partner” in the Indo-Pacific strategy is “captive to diaspora politics.”

“If Trudeau’s main message to Modi is that ‘we’re worried about election interference that you guys are doing in Canada,’ and not that ‘we want to build a partnership with you,’ that tells you what Trudeau’s priorities are,” he said. “There’s been a very, very poor judgement—at least by him and people around him—not to take the long geopolitical view. Whether you like Modi or not, or India or not, you can’t ignore them and you’ve got to engage with them.”

Toronto Metropolitan University professor Sanjay Ruparelia, an expert on Indian politics and democracy, said Canada and India’s substantive differences have led to a situation of a hardened bilateral relationship.

He said the difficult diplomatic relationship between the two countries may force Canada towards increased co-operation with Japan and South Korea as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy, but noted that a reduced role for India would give the strategy a “lack of coherence.”

“[India] is a necessary, vital relationship for Canada to maintain and improve, but there are a lot of issues that are going to challenge that,” he said.

With the strategy, Ruparelia said there was an expectation that ties between Canada and India would get stronger, but he remarked the last year has shown that is not the case.

He called Trudeau’s summit visit “incredibly difficult,” but noted that there will always be differences between the two countries given their policy divergences.

Former senior diplomat Ben Rowswell, head of the Network for Democratic Solidarity, said the G20 summit showed a denigration of global governance given its weak results.

“I’m not sure this really bodes well for the broader environment that Canada needs,” he said, pointing to the failure to build consensus at the summit in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sustainable development.

“That’s extremely worrisome to Canada,” he said, “way more worrisome than any one bilateral relationship.” He added that Canada has to balance its engagement with India and engage where it can, while not being subject to a country that is showing “complete disrespect” for Canadian sovereignty.

He said that India’s actions aren’t in the “same league” as China’s illiberal behaviour, but are in the “same character” and “same tone” when it comes to its aggressive attitude towards Canadian sovereignty.

“It’s really an attempt to try to rewrite the rules and norms of the international system in favour of raw power politics,” he said.