Helping India rise would be a shrewd geopolitical move for Canada

Opinion: Put simply, an economically dynamic India is helping Canada brave an increasingly hostile Indo-Pacific by cleverly offsetting China’s rise

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Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar had a busy week at this year’s UN General Assembly. That the two chief diplomats have not met – bilaterally, or for multilateral or trilateral talks – should come as no surprise given the tepid state of Canada-India relations.

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It is surprising, even astounding, that no meaningful steps are being taken to revitalize relations between the countries. Both work separately through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) to address such challenges, making their partnership a natural and necessary extension.

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India’s future as a reliable security partner in the Indo-Pacific depends on how New Delhi advances two goals: digital transformation and climate change. Put simply, an economically vibrant India is helping Canada brave an increasingly hostile Indo-Pacific, deftly offsetting China’s rise.

Undoubtedly, politics impedes progress. The Trudeau administration’s inability to develop a strategic foreign policy has left diplomacy to the vagaries of personal preference, international optics, and domestic politics. Working with pluralistic democracies like India should be in Canada’s national interest, but perhaps the implications of electoral politics, party preferences, and perhaps institutional inertia have complicated the issue.

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For India, its rise as an influential power has led to an increasingly instrumental and interest-based foreign policy that prioritizes major powers such as the United States, France, China, Japan and Russia. Canada does not appear here. However, forces may be joining in the Indo-Pacific to give Ottawa and New Delhi a chance to forge a viable new partnership.

How would this partnership manifest itself?

There is an opportunity to anchor Canada-India relations on an innovation-centric agenda that emphasizes the digital economy and the nexus between climate change and energy. This would include topics such as the digital economy, 5G, cybersecurity, space, start-ups, energy access and distribution, green technologies and electric vehicles. Such a multidimensional pact could be fruitful for both sides.

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COVID-19 has greatly accelerated the rise of India’s new-age digital consumers, and almost every segment of India’s economy is going digital. Critical technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, autonomous systems, the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G are accelerating India’s digital transformation.

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Canada can and should facilitate India’s economic transformation with a focus on digital innovation. In the fields of healthcare, education, finance, and agriculture, there is a growing demand for advanced computing techniques to accomplish tasks such as predicting and managing disease outbreaks, understanding crop yield patterns in the face of unpredictable climate events, and developing tools to expand access to education.

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Canada’s distinct strengths in advanced computing, particularly machine learning and AI, can help Indian entrepreneurs address such challenges. There are natural synergies between India’s information and communications technology and Canada’s renowned AI capabilities. Canada’s technological expertise, funding and collaboration can increase productivity, create jobs, ensure digital openness and spur India’s economic growth.

Canada and India can also build a mutually beneficial climate partnership based on innovation. India has made ambitious commitments to decarbonization and leadership on issues such as renewable energy. Rather than decarbonizing at the expense of development, India plans to reshape its economy by embracing low-carbon opportunities that create additional benefits such as creating new industries, new jobs and cleaner air and water for its citizens.

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Ottawa should engage New Delhi at this interface between climate and development. So far, climate cooperation has been limited and focused on the exchange of knowledge and experience. It’s time to get specific. There are numerous opportunities for climate technology transfer, notably water, waste management, carbon capture and storage, green hydrogen and the development of reliable smart grids.

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Helping India reduce carbon emissions, improve access to energy and strengthen its thriving but largely insecure digital infrastructure will make an impact at home in the face of climate change, deter cyber threats and create digital links between two dynamic innovation sectors.

Canada and India face challenges to realize the potential of their partnership. Both governments must determine how and where Canadian companies can unlock value. Cross-agency policy coordination should occur on both digital and climate issues that could otherwise stifle collaboration. For Canada and India to avoid the kind of discord that leads to limited bilateral relations, political leaders in Ottawa and New Delhi must above all strive to develop a better understanding of each other’s strategic interests.

Karthik Nachiappan is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

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