The United States finds itself in a precarious position as tensions escalate between Canada and India. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s startling accusation that India may have played a role in the death of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil triggered the diplomatic row. The unanimous condemnation of this alleged violation of Canadian sovereignty by the Canadian government and opposition parties prompted Ottawa to expel a senior Indian diplomat, Pavan Kumar Rai, whom Canada claims heads the Canadian branch of India’s foreign spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). India vehemently denied the allegations, countering that Canada was diverting attention from separatist terrorism and extremism. New Delhi also expelled a Canadian diplomat in a tit-for-tat move.
The diplomatic tensions were apparent during Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit to New Delhi for the 2023 G20 Summit. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi expressed grave concerns about Sikh “Khalistan” protests in Canada, which he perceived as threatening India’s territorial sovereignty and integrity. Canada has the largest Sikh diaspora population outside Punjab, India. A segment of this diaspora advocates for an independent Sikh majority state known as Khalistan. Prime Minister Trudeau defended these protests as exercises of freedom of expression, assembly, and peaceful protest. He raised the alleged Indian involvement in Nijjar’s killing directly with Indian Prime Minister Modi during the G20 sideline meeting. Furthermore, Trudeau discussed this issue with President Joe Biden, British prime minister Rishi Sunak, and French president Emmanuel Macron at the G20 Summit. It complicates efforts by Canada and its allies to strengthen relations with India to counterbalance China’s rise.
Strategic Partnerships with India
For geostrategic reasons, India has long been considered an indispensable partner for Canada and its allies in their Indo-Pacific strategies. The United States, under the Bush Administration, recognized the strategic significance of India and initiated efforts to build a strategic partnership. One significant milestone in this partnership was the signing of the landmark 2005 India-U.S. nuclear deal. Washington agreed to lift all sanctions imposed on India after its nuclear tests in 1998. This strategic partnership is celebrated as a relationship between the “world’s largest democracy” and the “world’s oldest democracy.” India’s democratic foundations, diverse population, and growing economy are critical for strategic and economic considerations. India’s shared democratic values also serve as a pivotal asset in the ideological competition against authoritarian regimes like China. India’s perception of China as an antagonistic neighbor is vindicated by frequent Chinese incursions into disputed border regions. This threat perception prompts India to participate in Washington’s rebalancing policy actively. In this equation, America relies on India to counterbalance China’s growing assertiveness, while India looks to Washington to bolster its position vis-à-vis Beijing.
Additionally, India is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), comprising the United States, Japan, and Australia. This group of democratic nations serves as a forum for cooperation in countering Chinese authoritarianism. China has vehemently criticized this group, labeling it as Washington’s attempt to encircle and contain China’s rise and calling it an “Indo-Pacific version of NATO.” Concurrently, China seeks to expand its influence in the Southeast Asian and South Asian regions through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
India also holds a pivotal role in Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategic vision unveiled in 2022. In this official document, Ottawa designates China as a “disruptive power” and commits to strengthening relations with Indo-Pacific regional states, specifically focusing on India. The strategy acknowledges “India’s growing strategic, economic, and demographic importance” in pursuing Canada’s geostrategic objectives. Canada committed to negotiating a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with India as part of this strategy. However, following Canada’s allegations, diplomatic tensions have halted negotiations, and Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng canceled her planned visit to India.
Response of Canada’s Allies
Canada has brought India’s alleged violations of Canadian sovereignty to its closest allies: the United States, Britain, and Australia. It is unlikely that these allies will openly condemn India due to concerns about the impact on their respective relationships with India. The United States expressed concerns over these allegations and called for India’s cooperation with investigations. It was also reported in media that the intelligence for this case is not exclusively sourced from Canada but has been corroborated and shared by fellow members of the Five Eyes alliance, comprising the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These intelligence sources encompass both human intelligence and intercepted communications of Indian diplomats.
President Biden, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, emphasized the importance of the “Quad partnership with India, Japan, and Australia to deliver concrete progress for the people of the region on everything from vaccines to maritime security.” Should diplomatic tensions between Canada and India escalate further, it will become increasingly challenging for Washington, D.C., to maintain a delicate balance between a NATO ally and an Indo-Pacific strategic partner.
The United Kingdom has announced its intention to continue free trade negotiations with India despite the “serious allegations” made by Canada. Australian Foreign Minister Wong announced that Canberra is “deeply concerned by these allegations” and “We have conveyed our concerns at senior levels to India.” These are all sympathetic but non-committal statements. London, Washington, and Canberra have prioritized forging stronger ties with India, recognizing its strategic significance in the Indo-Pacific region. These states are unlikely to align exclusively with Canada, given India’s continued strategic importance in the context of their Indo-Pacific interests.
The World’s Largest Democracy
India shares democratic values with Western countries, providing common ground for a strategic partnership against authoritarian China. However, in recent years, India’s democratic credentials have come under scrutiny. The Modi government’s pursuit of Hindu nationalism, allegations of minority rights violations, human rights abuses, and restrictions on free media and civil society have raised concerns among Western nations. During Prime Minister Modi’s state visit to the United States in June, the Biden administration faced pressure from lawmakers to address human rights concerns publicly. Seventy-five U.S. senators and members of the House of Representatives wrote a letter to President Biden, urging him to discuss human rights violations with Modi openly. Additionally, during Modi’s address to the U.S. Congress, several left-wing Democrats boycotted the event. The Biden administration opted not to publicly raise these human rights issues due to concerns about their negative impact on bilateral relations.
India’s recent reclassification from a “free” to a “partly free” country by Freedom House carries significant implications. Instead of serving as a champion of democracy to counterbalance authoritarian regimes like China, the Modi government’s policies appear to push India toward authoritarianism. The United States has been building its strategic partnership with India based on shared democratic values. If India continues on this trajectory towards authoritarianism, the very foundation of this partnership could become shaky. Given India’s status as the world’s most populous country, the fifth-largest economy, and possessing one of the most powerful militaries, such a shift could weaken the global order. The United States should hold India accountable for its deviations from democratic values and must not sacrifice its commitment to democratic values for short-term strategic interests.
Managing and containing the diplomatic tensions between Canada and India is crucial. Prime Minister Trudeau has clarified that Canada is not “provoking” India and expects full cooperation in the ongoing investigation. However, it is unlikely that New Delhi will readily cooperate with Ottawa. It is important to note that it is equally in India’s interest to improve its relations with Canada and its allies to counter China’s threat. India relies on Western countries as much as they rely on New Delhi. India’s response should ideally involve cooperation in the investigations if it believes it has nothing to hide. Unfortunately, India has chosen an escalatory route, issuing a travel advisory to its citizens in Canada and suspending visa services after vehemently denying Canada’s allegations. In this context, the United States must mediate to ensure that relations between its closest ally and strategic partner remain stable.
Saira Bano is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Thompson Rivers University. Her primary research interests are International Relations theories, great power politics, security issues, the nuclear non-proliferation regime, nuclear weapons concerns in South Asia, and the intersection of domestic politics and foreign policy. She received her PhD from the Centre for Military, Security, and Strategic Studies (CMSS) at the University of Calgary.