Canada-India rift is ‘painful’ for common friend Australia: Australian High Commissioner to India

Philip Green says Australia hopes and trusts that the two countries can work through these difficulties and find some new foothold in the bilateral relationship; last week, Australia had expressed concern over expulsion of 41 Canadian diplomats

October 29, 2023 08:10 pm | Updated October 30, 2023 08:04 am IST - NEW DELHI

Philip Green, Australian High Commissioner to India during an interview in New Delhi.

Philip Green, Australian High Commissioner to India during an interview in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

The rift between Canada and India is “painful” for Australia that has good ties with both, but will not affect bilateral ties, Australian High Commissioner to India Phillip Green said. He said the conversations between Indian and Australian officials over the issue would “stay” between the diplomats. In an interview to The Hindu, Mr. Green, who took over as Australia’s Ambassador in August, confirmed that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who travelled to India twice this year, was looking forward to return to Delhi next year for the Quad summit due to be held around January 26. He did not, however, confirm the date for the summit, saying that is for India to announce.

“Canada is an old friend of Australia’s and India is a dear friend and a country of considerable importance to us,” the Australian High Commissioner said, likening the India-Canada tussle sparked by the killing of Khalistani separatist Nijjar in Surrey in Canada, and the expulsion of diplomats to a dilemma between personal friends. “It’s painful, and it’s difficult. We hope and we trust that some new foothold can be made in the bilateral relationship and they can work through these difficulties as soon as possible,” he added. 

Last week, Australia had issued a statement of “deep concern” that had been conveyed at the “senior levels” in India after the government demanded the expulsion of two-thirds of the Canadian High Commission staff in Delhi, and 41 Canadian diplomats left the country under threat of having their diplomatic immunity revoked. 

“These conversations are sensitive and I don’t propose to go into them. What transpires between diplomats is a matter that will stay between diplomats,” he said, when asked about India’s response to the Australian statement.

While Australia is a “five eyes” alliance partner of Canada, along with the U.S., the U.K. and New Zealand that share real-time regular intelligence, it is also working with India in the Quad partnership for the Indo-Pacific with the U.S. and Japan. It is India’s turn to host the Quad summit next year, and sources have confirmed that the Modi government had earlier hoped to have all Quad leaders as guests for Republic Day in 2024. However, as the Australian National Day also falls on January 26, Mr. Albanese was unable to travel to India for the summit before January 27. Diet, the Japanese Parliament, will be in its Budget session on January 26, but Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida can travel for the next day as well, it is learnt.  

U.S. Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti had confirmed in September that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had personally invited U.S. President Joseph Biden to be the chief guest on Republic Day, and the U.S.’ confirmation is awaited, after a which the date for the Quad summit would be sealed. A response from the U.S. may arrive in the next few weeks, at the India-U.S. ‘2+2’ meeting where External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh are expected to host U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defence Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin in Delhi for talks in the first half of November.

“It’s entirely up to the Government in India, and in particular Prime Minister Modi, to announce the date of the Quad summit. PM Albanese was here for the G-20 summit, and he is looking forward to the Quad summit. He’s very much looking forward to coming back to India,” the Australian High Commissioner said about the scheduling.

When asked if the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic and Commercial Agreement (CECA) free trade agreement (FTA) would be ready for signing by Mr. Albanese’s visit, Mr. Green said that would be his “preference” but he couldn’t put any “deadline” to it. Indian and Australian negotiators had completed an early harvest Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement(ECTA) that came into force in December 2022, and have held seven rounds of talks on the comprehensive FTA. 

Praising ECTA and citing a 75% trade utilisation figure for the agreement, Mr. Green said that one of the issues holding up the CECA is on gaining access to Indian markets for Australian agricultural and dairy products.

“For us, a key factor will be additional access for our high quality agricultural products into India. We understand there are sensitivities there. We can work with those sensitivities,” he added.

India’s trade negotiators have been negotiating a number of trade deals, hoping to complete them before the 2024 General Elections, including intense rounds of talks for the FTA with the U.K.; talks with the European FTA (EFTA) grouping of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland; and CECA talks with Australia. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with Canada was put on hold due to the break in India-Canada ties over the Nijjar killing, which the Canadian government blamed Indian government “agents” for. 

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