PM’s foreign visit troubles complicate tricky trade efforts

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is probably wishing his first state visit to India had gone smoother.

The Liberal government is under fire after multiple media reports said Jaspal Atwal, the man convicted of the attempted murder of a moderate Indian politician, had been invited to an official function hosted by Canada’s high commissioner to India. Trudeau was scheduled to attend the event.

The invitation was later revoked, although not before the prime minister’s wife, Sophie Trudeau, was photographed with Atwal at an event earlier in the week.

British Columbia MP Randeep Sarai has said he added Atwal’s name to the invite list. Sarai was one of 14 MPs who paid their own way to partake in the India state visit.

“That invitation should never have been issued in the first place,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told MPs in question period Feb. 26, echoing remarks made by Trudeau during his trip.

The prime minister was not in the House of Commons Feb. 26. According to his public schedule, he was taking a personal day.

Conservative MPs called the trip “embarrassing.” NDP MPs questioned aloud what the “point” of the trip was. The prime minister and his family have also been heavily criticized for his decision to wear cultural dress for several days during the trip.

The Atwal affair comes as Canadian-Indian relations come under heightened public and political scrutiny. Several Indian officials are uneasy about the Liberal government’s relationship with the Sikh separatist movement. Many Canadian Sikhs vote Liberal.

On the agriculture front, Canada and India have recently butted heads over fumigation rules for pulse shipments and New Delhi’s decision to impose stiff import tariffs of 30 to 50 percent on imports of chickpeas, split peas and lentils without warning.

Officials from both countries have agreed to work toward a fix on the fumigation issue by the end of 2018, India and Canada said in a joint statement Feb. 23. The statement did not bear any reference to the import tariffs, which do not violate India’s WTO commitments.

India and Canada have also agreed to continue working on facilitating Canadian access for Indian organic products. No timeline was specified.

Despite those agreements, the prime minister’s India visit is the latest in a series of international trips that appear to have gone sideways on him.

One cannot forget the confusion that swirled around the prime minister’s trip to Vietnam last November, where he skipped a meeting with TPP-11 leaders.

The Liberals blamed a schedule miscommunication. Japanese officials were livid, threatening to sign the renamed trade agreement — the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership — with or without Canada.

Japan is one of this country’s most sought after markets for agricultural goods, particularly given ongoing uncertainty around Canada’s trade relationship with the United States and the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Canadian officials were forced to launch into diplomatic damage control, including several visits with individuals at the Japanese embassy in Ottawa.

Nor can one forget the prime minister’s trip to China — one of the fastest growing economies in the world — where the two countries failed to formally launch bilateral trade talks. Trudeau insisted after the four-day trip that substantial progress had been made.

Canadian agricultural exporters have flagged China as a key trading market going forward.

As well, tensions remain at the ongoing NAFTA renegotiations, which kicked off again in Mexico City Feb. 25.

Ottawa’s need to diversify Canadian trade markets is real — a challenge that is only made more difficult when state visits and other international trips don’t go as planned. Global trade in an increasingly protectionist world, a trend to which India is not immune, is no easy task at the best of times.

Sloppy diplomacy only makes the job harder.

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