Harper leaves Ottawa on Saturday, leading a political and business delegation to the world’s largest democracy on a mission to forge closer economic ties with the emerging powerhouse.
Travelling from Chandigarh in the north to Bangalore in the south, Harper will spend six days in India, a duration rarely seen on the PM’s foreign travels but that reflects the priority Canada now places on the nation, an aide says.
“It is out of the ordinary for the prime minister to spend that many days in a country. There’s a lot to do, there’s a lot to see, there’s a lot to be accomplished. That takes time,” said Andrew MacDougall, director of communications.
Harper, who will be accompanied by wife Laureen, will also be travelling with International Trade Minister Ed Fast, Bal Gosal, the minister of state for sport, and Tim Uppal, minister of state for democratic reform.
There will be several tangible announcements, such as a possible pledge of university funding to foster education ties between the two nations. Harper is also expected to announce the creation of a new Canadian trade office in southern India.
Harper and his cabinet colleagues, who have made India a regular stop this past year, are mindful of the investment potential as India struggles to keep pace with its growing population, which already stands at 1.2 billion.
Those challenges were driven home this summer when the nation’s overtaxed hydro grid — which routinely falls short of meeting demand — suffered a massive failure that left 600 million Indians in the dark.
Helping India on this front may prove the best way for Canada to get its foot in the door, said Rana Sarkar, president of the Canada-India Business Council.
“There’s a lot going on India right now but . . . there are some crisis needs that they need to solve right now, including infrastructure and education and environment-related issues,” Sarkar said.
“If Canadians go in there . . . and look to be useful in those crisis needs, then we’re going to get a great audience.”
But he cautioned that India is focused more on Europe and other parts of Asia, making it a challenge for Canada to get on the country’s radar screen.
“How do we punch above our weight in India? I think that is part of the challenge,” Sarkar said.
On that front, Canada’s large Indo-Canadian community, numbering some 1 million, gives it a natural advantage, Sarkar suggested.
“Most Indians, at a certain level, would say they’ve got a personal connection to Canada. The secret then is how do we make more of that, strengthen that diaspora,” Sarkar said.
Naval Bajaj, president of the Indo-Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said the time is ripe for Canada to take advantage of the evolving Indian economy.
“There’s a growing young population, a growing middle class,” Bajaj said.
“Today, India is on the cusp of development. For development, they need infrastructure, they need energy, they need the expertise of higher education and they need natural resources,” he said.
“Canada is a country that can help provide all those things. In return, it’s going to help grow our businesses, grow our trade,” Bajaj said.
Harper and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have set the goal of tripling trade between the two countries to $15 billion by 2015. At the heart of that expanded trade relationship is a free-trade deal now under negotiation. A sixth round of talks is scheduled for Ottawa this month with officials still confident of getting a deal sometime next year.
“We have to expand our trade around the world. If you look at the States and the (European Union), growth there is not good and it will be a while before it is good,” MacDougall told reporters in a briefing this week.
“(Canada) has to diversify its trade out there into the world,” he said.
In the meantime, the two countries could use Harper’s visit to announce a Canada-India investment protection agreement, meant to protect investors in each country against arbitrary or discriminatory practices.
The Conservative government has already acknowledged the potential in India with visits by senior cabinet ministers such as Fast, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.
Oliver used his September visit to sell his Indian hosts on Canada’s energy offerings, notably oil exports and liquefied natural gas, given that India’s reliance on imported natural gas and oil is expected to reach 70 per cent in the next five years.
“If we’re going to achieve our goal of boosting trade, energy is going to be a big part of that,” MacDougall said. “Getting those resources to Asia-Pacific and south Asia is a priority.”
But the trip unfolds as uncertainty swirls around Ottawa’s approach to foreign investments in the Canadian energy sector. The Harper government is just weeks from announcing whether it will OK the $15.1-billion takeover of Calgary-based Nexen Inc. by the state-owned giant China National Offshore Oil Co.
The deadline to rule on the offer comes during Harper’s time overseas, though it could be extended. Ottawa has also promised that the ruling will provide clarity around future takeovers.
The federal government has already rejected a bid by state-owned Malaysian firm Petronas to take over Canadian natural gas producer Progress, though the firm was given 30 days to make changes to its proposal.
MacDougall denied the government was sending mixed signals on the energy file, insisting that Canada “does welcome foreign investment.”
“Canada overwhelmingly supports foreign investment in Canada. There have been a small handful of transactions — three — that have been turned down. Many, many more have been approved,” he said.
One irritant on the energy front with India is the nuclear cooperation agreement meant to open up the subcontinent as a vital export market for Canadian uranium and reactor technology.
Though the deal was signed in 2010, it remains in limbo because neither country can agree on how the use of the sensitive nuclear material will be monitored.
“We want to have confidence that when nuclear material goes into the country that we know where it is,” MacDougall said.
From there, he travels to New Delhi for meetings with Canadian business people, followed by a day of meetings with Indian politicians, capped by a discussion with Singh, the prime minister.
On Nov. 7, he will speak to the World Economic Forum meeting in Delhi, before flying to Chandigarh in the Punjab region.
Harper ends his visit in Bangalore, where he is expected to announce the opening of a new trade consulate, an important move for the business sector. Billed as India’s Silicon Valley, this city is a burgeoning hub for telecommunications and technology as well as the aeronautics sector.
He wraps up his extended foreign trip with a stop in Manila, Philippines, and then Hong Kong, where on Remembrance Day he will visit the cemetery for Canadian soldiers killed defending Hong Kong from Japanese invaders in World War II.
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