Signs from Canada

Published : Apr 28, 2001 00:00 IST

With economic considerations outweighing post-Pokhran-II political stances, Canada moves closer to India.

CANADA has cleared the cloud of discontent that hung over its relations with India since the latter's nuclear tests in 1998. In a bold initiative, the Canadian government chose to forgive India for, if not forget, what it saw as a transgression of its own nuclear policy. For a country that helped India in its industralisation by selling its famed Candu nuclear reactors, Canada would probably have felt guilty of committing a commercial sin when India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. The blasts in the Rajasthan desert and the tit-for-tat response from Pakistan in 1998 may have shaken the Canadian government shaken further and its faith in the ideal of a nuclear-free world. However, the tests could not have taken the peace-loving nation by surprise. After all, it had experienced a rude shock in 1974.

The shock waves from Pokhran-I ruptured the relations between India and Canada and it took years to repair and rebuild them. Pokhran-II further proved that India could afford to cock a snook at Canada and, to a large extent, the rest of the world. No doubt the Commonwealth frowned and wailed, with Canada's Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy leading the chorus in denouncing the two South Asian neighbours for their ghastly behaviour.

The United States reacted strongly by imposing sanctions, and Canada followed suit. Canada defended its position and was unwilling to listen to India's case. Axworthy's stance was seen as one falling into the pattern of Canada's foreign policy. But what the sanctions meant in reality was lost on Canada. It took Canada more than two years and the exit of Axworthy not only from his post as Foreign Minister but from politics altogether to realise the fact that the sanctions had little impact on India.

India's consistent stand against signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in its present form despite the cajoling by and pressures from the U.S. may have been a signal for both the U.S. and Canada that it was a no-go situation. It seemed wiser for both to bend rather than break their ties with India.

After Axworthy announced that he would not seek re-election to Parliament, the corridors of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and bilateral trade associations were abuzz with rumours that Canada's relationship with India would once again be on sound lines. It was only a matter of time before the Liberal government would lift the curtains and let the sunshine in on the relations.

Foreign Minister John Manley announced on March 20 the lifting of the sanctions, but with a terse message about Canada's "deep concern about the dangerous trend toward nuclear proliferation in South Asia". He called on India to "renounce its nuclear weapons programme, to sign and ratify the CTBT and to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state." The premise for the announcement was what Manley called India's "unilateral moratorium on further nuclear testing" and the encouraging information that the Indian government was searching for consensus on signing the CTBT.

However, it is economic considerations rather than these political or military insights that seem to have spurred Canada into action. Indo-Canadians may not have the kind of political muscle Indian-Americans have, but their growing population, along with the fact that five members of Parliament have their origin in India and many political heavyweights in the ruling Liberal party, including Ministers, have strong links with the community, may have forced Canada's hand.

Sanjeev Chowdhury, the Canadian Vice-Consul in Mumbai who has been appointed Press Secretary to Manley, said: "By announcing re-engagement with India, we intend to begin, again, ministerial visits between our two countries. The Minister for Immigration, Elinor Caplan, made a visit to India some weeks ago. Our International Trade Minister, Pierre Pettigrew, intends to visit India later this year. Our Foreign Affairs Minister, John Manley, will also visit India either later this year or early in 2002." The young Indo-Canadian diplomat said: "Canada intends to send its senior Ministers to India to show that it wants to be a full partner with India by sharing ideas in multilateral fora and by determining what both countries can do to further our trade interests. We want India to know that Canada is open for business and is interested in actively pursuing the Indian market."

Just before Caplan and her team, which included the Indo-Canadian MPs Gurbax Malhi, Gurmant Grewal and Deepak Obhrai, left for India, Jim Karygiannis, a Liberal MP, returned from a visit to India and Pakistan and said he would convince the government the need to normalise relations with both the countries. Karygiannis, like Minister of International Cooperation Maria Min-na, an MP based in the Greater Toronto Area, has a vote base in the South Asian community. Karygi- annis, who is of Greek origin, spoke about his friendship with Defence Minister George Fernan-des (who has since resigned) during the latter's private visit to Toronto a few months ago.

Minna's decision to increase the quantum of Canadian aid for the earthquake-hit Gujarat from $5 million to $10 million was as much a prelude to the unfolding political situation as it was a humanitarian gesture. As the Minister responsible for the Canadian International Aid Agency (CIDA), Minna was quick to respond to the Indian community's prodding to go beyond a token aid package of $5 million. (the CIDA's several projects in India had been suspended, except those in the field of education and those with a humanitarian angle.) Last year, when a cyclone devastated Orissa, Minna sanctioned $150,000 towards relief through the International Red Cross.

Prof. Arthur Rubinoff, a political scientist from the University of Toronto and an expert on South Asia, said that "the normalisation of Indo-Canadian relations coincides with the departure of former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy. Axworthy sanctimoniously attempted to isolate and punish India following the 1998 nuclear tests. This tactic was counterproductive: It meant that Canada could play no role in helping India develop its nuclear doctrine, and reduced Ottawa's influence on a very important country. The problem for Ottawa is to now find a diplomatic role it can play on the subcontinent in the new century. Historically, Canada's function in the region was to act as a conduit between Washington and New Delhi when they had strained ties. Since the United States and India have been engaged in the most intense dialogue in their bilateral relations, Canada has become irrelevant."

A policy paper on Canada's relations with South Asian countries called for stronger ties with India than with Pakistan. Caplan having given Pakistan the go-by during her recent trip confirms Ottawa's gamble to be closer to India than Pakistan, whose record in democracy has obviously angered Canada. The visits to India of high-ranking personalities Deputy Foreign Minister for Asia-Pacific Joseph Caron, Deputy Minister for International Trade Rob Wright, CIDA President Len Good - he was invited to a seminar on micro-credit before Caplan's visit - might have been influenced by policymakers or could have been part of the assessment process that led to Manley's decision.

Speaking about bilateral trade during 2000, DFAIT spokesperson Andre Lemay said that Canadian exports were probably around $495.5 million and that imports were estimated at $1.2 billion, which marked an increase of about $200 million over 1999. The major items of import from India were clothes, iron and steel, organic chemicals, natural and cultured pearls and cotton, while exports were mainly pulp and paper, vegetables and fertilizers.

The economic significance Manley has attached to the lifting of sanctions is evident from his observation that "Canada is encouraged by India's economic reform efforts and the results that they have achieved" and that Canada would "continue to seek new commercial opportunities in India's evolving business environment."

Haroon Siddiqui, editor emeritus of the best-selling Toronto Star, said in a recent column: "That India is emerging as an economic behemoth, while still struggling with mass poverty, is reason enough for Canada's resumption of relations after a three-year hiatus prompted by the 1998 nuclear blasts." He pleads that Canada take into account Pakistan also. "Canada is uniquely placed. We have a tradition of dealing with regimes we do not necessarily agree with - John Diefenbaker with the Soviet Union, Pierre Trudeau with China, several Prime Ministers with Cuba. We are also blessed with a Chinese Canadian community of about 1.2 million, and a South Asian community of about the same size. They can provide a bridge to trade - and our common understanding." (Toronto Star and Canadian Television have decided to set up bureaus in New Delhi.)

The Canada-India Business Council (C-IBC) has called for a second Team Canada mission to India (the first one was in 1996). Prime Minister Jean Chretien led a team to China recently. Murray A. Jans, executive director of C-IBC wants Ottawa to invite Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Canada in order to demonstrate to India that Canada is a worthy partner in the cultural, social and economic spheres. He feels the thaw in relations will help Canada regain the profile that is needed for further development of business and at the same time put Canada on a more competitive footing against countries that have already made advances in India. C-IBC recently took to India a team of businessmen involved in the construction and roadways sectors.

The immense contribution made by Indians to the information technology (IT) sector in the U.S. was a nagging pointer to Canada. In an effort to counter-balance the technological edge the U.S. had over Canada, Ottawa introduced a pilot project to expedite the paperwork needed to attract Indian IT personnel willing to work in Canada. Immigration officials were also looking at ways and means to give landed immigrant status to Indian IT professionals who may want to live in Canada temporarily.

Canada's cold-shouldering of India could be a period best forgotten. The refreshing change in Canada's attitude promises a new path in its South Asia policy. The proposed visits of both Manley and Pierre Pettigrew, and a likely visit by Omar Abdulla, India's Minister of State for Commerce, to Canada may help in cement the diplomatic cracks and pave the way for stronger ties.

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