Canada and India at 60: Moving beyond History?

By Touhey, Ryan | International Journal, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Canada and India at 60: Moving beyond History?


Touhey, Ryan, International Journal


On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations, the Canada-India relationship is being re-examined in Ottawa with a sense of interest not seen since the early 1950s. After the equivalent of a prolonged diplomatic ice age punctuated by periods of high optimism from both sides, India is increasingly on Canadian minds to an extent that was unfathomable as little as seven years ago. Indeed, emerging India is now referred to as a "key" priority country by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.1

As Ottawa elevates the importance given to India and as officials, business leaders, and educators display a keen enthusiasm in fostering linkages with their Indian counterparts, they are reversing a historical trend that has been more negative than positive for much of the past six decades. From 1976 until 2001, neither country was wholly committed to fostering closer ties with the other.

The key event that triggered the ice age was Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's decision in 1974 to test a "peaceful nuclear device" using plutonium extracted from a Canadian-designed and -constructed reactor. It is a painful and lingering memory that reinforced the fact that throughout the 19503-703, both countries held starkly incompatible views on international relations and on nuclear nonproliferation regimes. Ottawa reacted far more harshly to the Indian test than New Delhi had anticipated and, during the next two years, both countries worked to salvage a relationship that had long been unravelling. These efforts to redevelop a relationship that eroded throughout the Cold War were futile. In the end, Canada looked to China and Japan as new economic and strategic partners in Asia and bilateral relations entered a period of prolonged drift.

Since 1991, a series of economic reforms and restructuring has led to India's impressive economic rise, and it remains a stable democracy in an otherwise troubled region. This has prompted successive governments in Ottawa to re-evaluate and adjust past attitudes and policies towards New Delhi. The common refrain in Ottawa these days is that India is a "priority nation" and that the Canadian government wants to broaden the overall bilateral relationship. New Delhi has signalled restrained optimism at Canada's interest.

A number of challenges lie ahead if Ottawa wishes to build a comprehensive relationship with India. Despite deeming India a "key priority," present signs suggest that the Canadian government has arrived at a crossroads and, in contrast to key allies such as Australia and the United States, is not wholly certain as to what it wants from India, apart from increased trade linkages. There are two options that the Conservative government can now pursue following the Liberals' decision to abandon the policy of isolating India in 2001 after the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests. The first option entails Ottawa, along with the provinces and the private sector, emphasizing the primacy of trade and investment links above a broader political relationship. The second option is more ambitious. This will entail Ottawa cultivating a broader political relationship that acknowledges the importance of expanding a complex commercial relationship involving trade, two-way investment, and advanced cooperation in science and technology while developing political and security aspects of a more comprehensive relationship.

At this moment, the first option appears to be favoured by Ottawa. If so, bilateral relations will, over time, likely be conducted mainly through the private sector, with the government playing a facilitating role as compared to a leading role. The bilateral feuds of the past are slowly fading from public and institutional memory. This is an opportune time to revisit and reassess the relationship to properly reflect new economic and geostrategic realities. The historical baggage carried from the past still contains the memories of the discord over Pokhran and other diplomatic disagreements. …

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