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(Bill Grimshaw)
(Bill Grimshaw)

John Ibbitson

Why Harper needs a nuclear deal with India Add to ...

Stephen Harper's aides wouldn't say whether he will sign a civil nuclear accord when he visits India next week. Negotiations, they said, were still under way.

But if a deal isn't signed now, it will be signed soon, for this simple reason: Canada needs India more than India needs Canada.

The Prime Minister's three-day visit to Delhi, Mumbai and Amritsar will be the longest he has ever spent visiting a country. The itinerary is chock-a-block with meetings, roundtables, wreath-laying and photo-ops.

There will be movement toward discussions that could lead to negotiations that may or may not produce a Canada-India free-trade agreement before the youngest among us are old.

But the signature piece of the trip is supposed to be a civilian nuclear agreement, which has existed in draft form since the summer. The accord would mirror similar deals reached by the United States, France and, mere days ago, the European Union.

International Trade Minister Stockwell Day is keen to add Canada to the list, but there reportedly is resistance from the striped pants set in Foreign Affairs.

Indo-Canadian relations have been cool for 30 years. This country was furious when India developed a nuclear weapons program by misappropriating Canadian nuclear-reactor technology.

But over the past two years, both countries have been attempting to improve relations, which should be close, if only because more than a million Canadians are of Indian ancestry, with only China sending more immigrants here each year.

There have been 11 ministerial visits to India over the past two and a half years, including five this year alone.

The gradual - and by no means total - evolution of the Indian economy from state control and high tariffs toward more open-market principles has contributed to white-hot economic growth. In the midst of a global recession, India's economy will expand by 6 per cent this year.

With growth comes hunger for energy. India's 17 nuclear reactors provide only 2.5 per cent of the country's electricity, but that figure is expected to double within a decade.

Former U.S. president George W. Bush negotiated an agreement in which India separated its civilian and military nuclear programs, subjecting the former to the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. France followed suit, and already has a contract to provide India with two new reactors. Canada wants in on the game.

Resistance comes from those who point to India's unreliability in keeping its word when it comes to nuclear-energy safeguards. And there is the question of whether such an agreement would also include the sale of uranium to fuel Indian power plants. Australia, another major supplier of uranium, is resisting selling uranium to India unless it signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement, which is unlikely, given that both India and its rival Pakistan are nuclear powers.

But the fact remains that Canada's hand is weak and India's strong. India and China are the two big markets for nuclear energy technology, with dozens of new reactors planned or under construction.

If Canada wants to have any hope of keeping its nuclear energy industry alive, it must reach civilian nuclear agreements with both countries. And there is talk in Ottawa that Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd. (AECL) could enter into technology, marketing or even ownership partnerships with the Indians.

Such agreements could lead to other agreements that would give Canadian industries access to a market with seemingly infinite growth potential.

The negotiations are all part of a larger geopolitical game, in which the developed nations seek to exploit the economic opportunities of both rising Asian giants, while offending neither.

Mr. Harper will be in China in early December. The truth is, he couldn't possibly visit one country without visiting the other.

The world has come a long way from India as the jewel of the British Empire and the wars and incursions that left China prostrate at the hands of the great European and North American powers.

It is those powers, struggling to shake off the nagging fear that they are in decline, that now knock on India and China's door, hat in hand, asking if they can please come in.

With a report from Shawn McCarthy

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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