Canada-India Spat: Weighing in on the Indo-Pacific

Canada-India relations have reached a new low with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s public accusation in the Canadian Parliament that the Indian government may be involved in the June 2023 assassination of a Canadian citizen who was also a Sikh activist.

This highly unusual public accusation was the result of intelligence services communicating to the Canadian government about the likely involvement of the State of India. Apparently, evidence of New Delhi’s alleged involvement came from an unnamed ally in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance who provided the information to the Canadian government.

India issued a strong denial. Following the accusation, we have seen a rapid negative spiral in Canada-India relations with online criticism and voracious media coverage in India criticizing Trudeau and Canada—claiming that Canada was inadvertently supporting the Khalistani separatist movement. In its latest response, the Indian government delivered warnings to Indian citizens about traveling to Canada and has suspended visa-processing services in Canada.

There are many inconvenient truths that this diplomatic spat has revealed.

First, if the accusations are indeed true about Indian government involvement in the assassination then Canada and other states like the U.S., Japan, and Australia will need to rethink the basis for their engagement with India. Hitherto, there was a sense in like-minded capitals that New Delhi shared more often than not a respect for rule-of-law, democracy, and international law. The extraterritorial killing of another national in their country of citizenship raises serious questions as to India’s commitment to a rules-based order.

Seen from allies and friends of Canada, the killing echoes the actions of states like Russia and Saudi Arabia who have a track record of extraterritorial killing and poisoning as we saw with the 2020 poisoning of Alexey Navalny,  the country’s most well-known opposition leader, and Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The incident if proved true will raise questions about India’s reliability and commitment to rule- of-law. It also amplifies pre-existing concerns about the trajectory of India’s Hindu nationalist development under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.     

Impact on Indo-Pacific Strategy

Second, the incident will impact Canada’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy that was released at the end of 2022. The long-awaited strategy was meant to create a sustainable, meaningful, and engaged Canadian presence in the broader Indo-Pacific. Part of that strategy included selective diversification (so-called de-risking) of trade away from the Chinese market towards Southeast Asia and importantly, India. It was hoped that an FTA would be signed between Canada and India by the end of 2023 that would be an important contribution to this selective diversification. This FTA most certainly is on life support today, if not dead for the foreseeable future, as is the planned Canadian Trade Mission.

Furthermore, without strong and sustained meaningful relations with India, Canada will find it increasingly difficult to enact other aspects of its Indo-Pacific strategy. India is the most populated country within the region. It plays an important role in many lateral relationships such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a minilateral that is providing public goods to the region. India is also involved in important initiatives such as the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) with Australia and Japan. Canada was aiming to plug into these initiatives to be able to provide public goods to the region and demonstrate its commitment.

Increased Canada-India tensions associated with the accusation will likely spill over into other areas as well, such as immigration flows from India to Canada, education exchanges, and efforts to establish cooperative partnerships to bolster Canadian contributions to infrastructure and connectivity projects in the region.

Like-minded Allies?

Third, the muted responses by allies of Canada demonstrate that the U.S. and like-minded countries value their relationship with India and its important role in balancing China over public support for Canada’s rightful concerns that a foreign country may be responsible for the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil. This reinforces growing concern in Canada that its traditional allies no longer take it seriously as a reliable partner as evidenced by its absence from the Quad, AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).

Fourth, the incident raises some awkward questions for Canadian immigration policy. What is a longtime Canadian citizen doing advocating for an independent Khalistan from Canada? Should Canadian citizenship and the safety of the geographic location of Canada be used to advocate for a separate state?

The answer to this question is certainly not black and white. Freedom of expression, a free and vibrant civil society and freedom of press are core Canadian values. Canadians advocated for a return to the one-country/ two systems model in Hong Kong, they commemorated the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, and most contemporarily, supported the complete withdrawal of Russian military forces from the Ukraine. There is an equivalency to defending Canadian citizen rights to advocate for these issues, especially if they are doing so in a manner that focuses on peaceful means. 

Fifth, the problem for Canada-India relations is not just this incident, but a broader pattern of misreading Indian intentions and Canadian engagement on the Indian front.

As Ashley Tellis wrote in his recent Foreign Affairs essay entitled “America’s Bad Bet on India: New Delhi Won’t Side With Washington Against Beijing,” betting on India to liberalize or take Western positions on a host of issues is a bad bet, this includes issues related to culture and diversity. Simply, India under PM Modi does not share Canada’s progressive values and prioritization of diversity, let alone citizens that use their Canadian base to advocate for an independent state that will carve out a chunk of India.  Expecting India, a country of at least 1.4 billion people to be swayed by what New Delhi understands as a small, liberal, and insignificant state to the north of the U.S. is unrealistic.

India is charting out its own future; prioritizing a multipolar world in which India is a major player. India continues to straddle difficult problems such as Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, or even a more assertive and allies’ first approach to constraining China’s growth in a nuanced and often unreliable way.

Domestic Pressures

Reports suggest that the issue of the assassination was brought up discreetly in the past few months. Moreover, it appears that Trudeau brought it up personally with Modi at the G-20 Summit in September, suggesting that Ottawa might indeed have been pursuing a discreet diplomatic solution so as to maintain the trajectory of Canada-India relations and the possibility of a year-end FTA.

Notwithstanding these efforts, it appears that the Canadian media was all set to reveal the accusations about the Indian government’s involvement in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil. Trudeau, already beleaguered by accusations about ignoring Chinese threats to Canadian Parliamentarian Michael Chong and not taking Chinese election interference seriously, might have felt the need to get ahead of the media reports to not further sully his leadership position.

Resurrecting Canada-India relations will now require realism, pragmatism, and an interest-based diplomatic approach on the part of both Ottawa and New Delhi. Modi may decide to wait out Trudeau in anticipation of a more pragmatic, less values-laden approach to bilateral relations. Trudeau, however, has few cards to play in resuscitating the relationship without being seen domestically as either not fundamentally wedded to his progressive values or not defending the lives of Canadian citizens.