India-Canada seek to rebuild ties on the plank of energy cooperation

Tags: Opinion
It is not easy to build a relationship, especially between two old friends that parted ways some time ago. India and Canada have been in the process of re-engaging and building closer ties over a time-consuming period that has often thrown up unexpected impediments arising out of past mistrust. The two sides have been discussing nuclear cooperation and a comprehensive economic partnership agreement for sometime now.

Addressing a business gathering in Delhi, visiting Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper likened the situation on the free trade talks to a Hindi film where two young people meet, “know they are meant for each other”, but have to overcome several obstacles before coming together. It’s similar with the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and sale of uranium for Indian nuclear plants.

The warmth in India-Canada ties was ruptured over Ottawa’s belief that India had diverted plutonium from a Canadian-built reactor for its nuclear test in 1974. Canada’s disregard of Indian complaints over Sikh radicalism morphing into extremist activities in that country further froze ties. With Canada becoming the hotbed for Khalistani activism, Sikh extremists bombed an Air India flight killing 331 persons, mostly Canadian citizens. New Delhi resented the tardy investigations by Canadian authorities, resulting in delayed conviction of the accused.

In recent years, the two countries have found many geopolitical and strategic reasons to improve economic and political ties, with the emergence of a large and growing Indian diaspora in Canada, numbering over a million that maintains deep family ties with India. Minorities have come to play a crucial role in the country’s politics with most political parties actively woo them in order to demonstrate a wider support base. Indians in Canada are not spread out across the country, but concentrated in a few pockets, where they play a significant role in local politics. The Indian community has actively pushed the Canadian government towards making greater efforts to strengthen ties with India.

Canada, which has withstood the recession that has hit neighbouring United States hard, has since been looking to diversify its economic engagement with emerging economies. Following its strong linkages with China in the past few years, Canada is now seriously looking to India, with a regular stream of business delegations from both countries visiting each other in the past couple of years. With almost 23,000 Indian students in Canadian campuses, it is also keen to attract more scholars.

The two sides have targeted bilateral trade to go up from the present $5 billion to $15 billion in 2015. This will require Canada to export more than lentils and peas (about 40 per cent of India’s imports from that country), potash and wood pulp to high tech items.

A major hurdle on the nuclear cooperation was overcome during a meeting of the two prime ministers, Manmohan Singh and Harper. The nuclear cooperation deal was signed in 2010 during Singh’s visit to Toronto, but the sale of uranium for Indian reactors was stuck on Ottawa’s insistence that it should be allowed to monitor the process to ensure that Canadian uranium was used for peaceful purposes alone. India was unwilling to allow any form of intrusive monitoring, and the two sides finally agreed to set up a joint committee to oversee exports of bomb-grade radioactive substance.

India is not only attracted to Canadian uranium, but also comprehensive nuclear technology as well as shale gas. Natural gas from Canada is much cheaper than gas imported from the Gulf, enough to offset the higher transportation costs. ONGC has shown interest in acquiring a stake in a Canadian shale oil company. Energy could become the driving force for deepening India-Canada ties in the future.

(The writer is a foreign affairs commentator)

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