In this file photo taken on September 11, 2019, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference. Photo: AFP / Dave Chan

The prime ministers of Canada and India are expected to meet either next weekend on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit at Schloss Elmau in Upper Bavaria, Germany, or toward the end of this month at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in Kigali, Rwanda.

In the view of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is to visit India next year to attend the G20 summit, this earlier meeting could not only be groundbreaking for Canada-India bilateral relations, but could carry deeper implications for the evolving Indo-Pacific realignments.

These reports are sourced to Wednesday’s phone conversation of two countries’ foreign ministers, Mélanie Joly and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

Though their official briefs make no mention of a prime-minister-level summit and both underlined their (varying) perspectives about building consensus against “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” and “misuse of freedoms and the dangers of extremism,” they both reiterated their unity on building a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which has lately come to be a point of convergence in their flip-flop relations.

As recorded in the Canadian readout, the two ministers “affirmed the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” In the wake of India’s growing recognition as the region’s net security provider and rising regional leader, while Canada seeks new partners in the face of its growing marginalization in this region, this could well become their new glue to stabilize their historically mercurial yet special relations.

The roller coaster

Independent India got off to a good start, with Jawaharlal Nehru’s October 1949 visit to Ottawa opening doors for Canada’s development assistance leading to supply of the CIRUS (Canada-India Reactor Utility Services) nuclear research reactor in 1954 laying the foundations of India’s nuclear program.

But soon, Cold War dynamics were to push them into opposite camps and, in 1974, prime minister Pierre Trudeau, father of current prime minister, was to describe India’s peaceful nuclear explosion as “betrayal,” suspending all cooperation.

The early 1980s saw Sikh militancy in India emerge as an added, though sporadic, irritant, the lingering effects of which were seen in Justin Trudeau’s last India visit in February 2018. A few uncanny events were to make this visit the second low point in Canada-India relations.

It was on the last day of the Trudeau family’s week-long visit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with him briefly. When contrasted with Modi having personally accompanied foreign leaders to multiple Indian cities and holding joint public rallies and roadshows with them, this diplomatic distancing was not lost on anyone.

The first friendly follow-up gesture came in October 2018 when Canada, defying strong Sikh lobbies at home, announced that it “would not recognize” Referendum 2020, a campaign that was being promoted by US-based “Sikhs for Justice” for holding a plebiscite on the secession of Punjab province from India.

But again, Trudeau’s December 2020 remarks on the farmers protest in India were to unleash public outrage, including India’s Ministry of External Affairs calling it “unwarranted” and telling a Canadian envoy of such remarks having “potential to ‘seriously’ damage bilateral ties.” 

Soon, Trudeau’s use of emergency provisions in the wake of February’s truckers’ protests in Canada were again to trigger a spate of commentaries calling out his hypocrisy in dealing with protests.

However, the two leaders have continued meeting at such forums as the G20 and G7 summits and held online conversations marking rituals of mutual engagement. Last September, Modi congratulated Trudeau on getting elected as prime minister for a third time and tweeted that he looked forward to “strengthening India-Canada relations, as well as our cooperation on global and multilateral issues.”

As a sign of positive momentum, their negotiations from 2021 for a full-fledged Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) hoped to achieve “an interim trade deal” before the end of this year. Yet it remains unclear if CEPA can boost their bilateral trade, which slipped during the pandemic.

The US disconnect

This is where these two friends of the United States – feeling at variance with US Indo-Pacific strategy – may reconnect in building post-pandemic resilience that has become inordinately China-centric, even anti-China. This is because, unlike the US, both Canada and India wish to restrain China by building mutually beneficial engagements with it, and not by alienating it.

China’s unprecedented economic rise and resultant political influence remain at the core of Indo-Pacific geopolitical imaginations. The past two decades have seen the Indo-Pacific region, led by China, emerge as the global growth engine and therefore the new global center of gravity.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has accelerated debate on the United States’ relative decline, causing the US to band together its allies to redress their so-called “shared” China challenge.

Canada, as a Pacific nation, has always aligned its policies with the US, becoming an ASEAN Dialogue Partner in 1977 and staying part of US-led Five Eyes Intelligence Sharing Network of World War II vintage. But when Five Eyes was revived by US president Donald Trump as part of his anti-China rhetoric, Canada refused to “share metadata with its Five Eyes allies,” respecting the privacy of its citizens.

Last month, Canada also became the last to join Five Eyes’ US-led campaign against accessing China’s fifth-generation (5G) technologies.

No doubt, Canada was neither included in the Quadrilateral Security Framework of Indo-Pacific democracies nor added to the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) security mechanism launched in September 2021; the UK was added in the latter though it is not even a Pacific nation. Canada has also so far failed to join the East Asia Summit except once as a special invitee.

Now, US President Joe Biden has not included Canada in his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), though it also excludes Mexico, Chile and Peru, which defies logic as all four nations already have free-trade agreements (FTAs) with the US. Also, all four were part of US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, after the US departure, has been revived as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Besides the US, seven of the 12 IPEF members also have an FTA with Canada as part of CPTPP. Moreover, unlike IPEF, the CPTPP has been in force since 2018 and offers concrete tariff reductions, market access and dispute settlement provisions.

The proposed IPEF, just beginning negotiations, aims to create some open-ended modules for flexible alignments, and it remains open to other aspirants like Canada or even China, which has already applied for inclusion in the CPTPP.

One explanation for Biden’s distancing from his close Pacific allies is that he wants to project IPEF as an exclusive US initiative for Asia and “didn’t want to share the stage and photo ops with non-Asian countries.” But others put the blame on Trudeau, saying “the current government is unfocused on the Indo-Pacific.”

Exploring alternative alignments

Both Canada and India continue to explore autonomous partnerships across the Indo-Pacific region. Both are averse to jumping on the bandwagon of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, which they feel remains too China-centric.

India continues to engage China, which is its largest trading partner. With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as its fourth-largest trading partner, India this year celebrates the 30th anniversary of their Dialogue Partnership. Likewise, facing exclusion from US-led Indo-Pacific initiatives, Canada has also been exploring alternative partners and paradigms. 

But does their growing clash over US Indo-Pacific strategies bring Canada and India closer?

Canada has already initiated negotiations for partial FTAs with India and ASEAN that promise to be far more substantive than IPEF. As well, there are good reasons to believe that IPEF is unlikely to win congressional approval in the US. This should open up avenues for Canadian and Indian negotiators.

Canada has already applied to join the Digital Economic Partnership Agreement (DEPA) of Chile, New Zealand and Singapore – three Indo-Pacific nations that are already with Canada in the CPTPP. In fact Canada would be better placed in DEPA, which unlike IPEF is a traditional trade agreement with provisions for tariff reductions, rules of origin for market access and dispute settlement mechanisms. 

This past Tuesday, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong welcomed Canada’s application to join the DEPA, which aims to explore innovative realignments for post-pandemic resilience by building infrastructure, smart cities and cybersecurity and address other issues of digitization. Likewise, the coming Monday will see Gabriel Boric, the president of Chile – another member of DEPA – arrive in Ottawa to take their relationship forward.

Google plans to lay its first sub-sea cable carrying 16 pairs of fiber-optic wires from Vancouver to Japan. Called Topaz, this project will provide faster access to Google services – including its search engine, Gmail, YouTube and Google Cloud – and will be ready by next year.

Can all this open new possibilities for middle powers like Canada and India coming together to balance the US anti-China preoccupation? Will the much-awaited Canadian Indo-Pacific Strategy reveal such a rethink and reconnect Canada and India?

Since early this year Joly has been reported saying that in spite of the all-consuming Ukraine crisis, she has been “activity working to deliver on a key marching order given her by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: to create a comprehensive new Indo-Pacific Strategy.”

This January saw the India and Canadian navies join the six-nation anti-submarine-warfare drill called Sea Dragon 22 in the Indo-Pacific waters. Their gradual coming together may work to make the US Indo-Pacific strategy more balanced and to their comfort. Alternatively, they could begin to explore alignments in spite of the US.

Either way their reconnect in the Indo-Pacific region promises to bring enduring stability to Canada-India relations.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia and professor of diplomacy and disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is president of the Association of Asia Scholars; adjunct senior fellow at the Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming.