Now is the time to make a Canada-India trade deal happen

Goldy Hyder is president and chief executive officer of Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

With the Canada-EU free-trade deal concluded, the Trans-Pacific Partnership on life support and the NAFTA renegotiations in flux, now is the time for Canada to prioritize a trade deal with India. Given the scope of India’s economic growth and the size of its population, there is no other market that can offer Canada a comparable return on any investment. Now, it is up to Canadian businesses to push the federal government to complete a Canada-India free-trade deal.

India’s potential seems limitless, which is why Canada launched free-trade talks with India in November, 2010. Yet today, more than six years later, we are still stuck at the table trying to seize the enormous economic benefits.

Indian companies clearly see the opportunities from increased trade with Canada. This past week, a delegation representing 150 Indian companies visited Canada in a concerted effort to identify new opportunities for bilateral investment and trade.

So why do we hear so little about Canada-India bilateral trade? How is it we aren’t pushing to complete talks when the need for diversification has never been greater?

To its credit, the Trudeau government has said India is a priority market – the Liberal’s election platform, the federal budget and key ministerial mandate letters all identify it as such. And in recent months, several Canadian officials have visited India, including Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

Despite these visits, it has been more than a year since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met in Washington and pledged to boost our bilateral economic partnership. Although it’s tempting to blame government for any lack of progress, the real culprits are those business leaders who continue to focus exclusively on the United States, Europe, China and Japan.

Without question, those four are crucial trade and investment markets for Canada, but they are all distracted by domestic or regional issues and shouldn’t be given greater priority than India.

While it may be that governments negotiate trade and investment agreements, it is businesses who profit from them. When businesses don’t push for trade deals, governments don’t pursue them.

Of course, many have done so in the case of India. The Canada India Business Council, the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce and the Canada India Foundation have long been proponents of strengthened ties. The message is clear: Canada must move swiftly to secure “first mover” advantage. We must move quickly in India or risk being left behind as others, such as Germany and France, pass us by.

For his part, Mr. Modi’s interest in Canada remains strong. During their meeting in April, 2016, he told Mr. Trudeau that Canada and India were “made for each other.” Not only are our two economies complementary, there is tremendous work we can do together in vital sectors such as energy, agriculture and agri-food, education and information technology.

As a sign of his seriousness, Mr. Modi has sent one of his country’s highest-profile diplomats, Vikas Swarup, to serve as India’s high commissioner in Ottawa – an inspired choice. Sensing an absence of awareness about India in Canada, Mr. Swarup has made it his diplomatic mission to educate and inform Canadian business leaders about the trade and investment opportunities available in India.

In addition to this laudable goal, Mr. Swarup must correct those misinformed about the barriers to greater labour mobility between Canada and India – obstacles that have stymied innovation.

Nobody denies the difficulty and complexity of finalizing progressive trade, investment or labour mobility agreements, especially with protectionist populism on the rise all around the globe. Canada and India are in no way immune from these virulent trends, but the best protection against protectionism is to demonstrate the value of international trade and foreign investment.

In this, the private sector again has a critical role to play. Business leaders cannot expect political leaders to do all the heavy lifting to communicate the potential merits of increased bilateral trade. Middle-class, middle-age and middle-income Canadians cannot be expected to automatically accept or assume the benefits, for them or their families, of securing greater access to India.

We are in an age when public support from the private sector is essential. Business leaders must take responsibility for building support for their corporate goals and commercial priorities. Canada and India share a number of assets and attributes, including common languages, similar legal principles and comparable financial systems. Let’s work to build on that strong foundation.

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