Federal Liberal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, fresh off a trade promotion trip to India, says a free-trade agreement with India “is high priority for our government.”
But for all the talk, it’s clear that any free trade with India remains a long way off.
Talks began with fanfare under the Conservative government led by Stephen Harper but quickly slowed as officials haggled over investor protections and thorny issues such as access for Indian temporary workers, skilled workers and visitors to Canada.
That turtle pace continued despite Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to his former international trade minister Chrystia Freeland setting out “the development of a targeted strategy to promote trade and investment with emerging markets, with particular attention to China and India,” as a goal for his government.
In an interview with the Star, Sohi said he believes a Canada-India free trade deal is possible in this mandate.
In his speech to a massive international trade conference called Vibrant Gujurat, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the audience, Sohi said two-way trade between the two countries grew by nearly 30 per cent between 2015 and 2016, a “remarkable achievement in the context of ongoing economic uncertainty all over the world.”
He said the Canadian government would like to see it increase even more: “Our trade with India is not as high as we would like to see.”
The promise of a bigger market in India for Canadian exports beckons.
Sohi reminded the audience more than 1,000 Canadian companies and educational institutions do business in or with India.
Canada has eight trade consulates there and Ottawa continues to talk up trade opportunities just as Harper, who is now in India, did.
On Tuesday, Harper posted a photo on Twitter of his meeting with Modi in New Delhi. “Great seeing my friend PM @NarendraModi today in #Delhi. His vision and leadership in transforming #India are needed in today’s world.”
But although Harper met Modi several times as prime minister and hosted Modi in Ottawa in April 2015 on the first visit of an Indian leader to Canada in 40 years — Trudeau has also met him — trade talks remain stalled at the officials’ level.
A Canadian government official says last fall Freeland met with her counterpart, Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s minister of state for commerce and industry, and the two agreed to direct their officials to “reinvigorate” discussions towards some kind of trade agreement — an instruction that was reconfirmed when Freeland and Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau met Indian counterparts again in December.
“Officials are in regular contact and our governments are working very closely to enhance our economic and commercial relationship — as evidenced by Minister Sohi’s recent working visit to India,” said Alex Lawrence, a spokesman for the newly named International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.
The Indian press reported this week that the Canadian government has instructed its officials to turn away from free trade talks with India to focus on the broader Trans-Pacific Partnership deal (of which India is not a part) — a report that Trudeau’s government flatly denies.
Sohi downplayed another report in the Indian press that Trudeau will visit India in March.
“He will be visiting India soon, I understand. I don’t know what the dates will be.”
An official in Trudeau’s PMO said it definitely will not be in March but would not confirm a date.
But Sohi emphasized the positive, saying there are “significant opportunities for greater co-operation” in industries like food, agriculture, energy and clean technology, education, skills development, infrastructure and aerospace.