Canada’s allies aren’t keen to take sides in confrontation with India over Sikh activist’s death

Canada’s Five Eyes allies showed little inclination Tuesday to wade into an escalating row between Ottawa and New Delhi over allegations that Indian agents were involved in the assassination of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C. on June 18.

Most opted to treat the allegation as a matter still to be investigated — in spite of the fact that the Trudeau government feels it has enough information to make an accusation in Parliament and expel a diplomat.

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adm. John Kirby was perhaps the most supportive of Canada.

WATCH: RCMP’S ability to protect Canadians questioned in wake of India allegation

RCMP’s ability to protect Canadians questioned in wake of India accusation

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc says he has ‘confidence’ in the RCMP’s ability to protect Canadians after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India’s government of being involved in the killing of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C.

“They are certainly serious allegations,” he said Tuesday, “and we believe in order to determine how credible they are, there needs to be a thorough investigation.

“Prime Minister Trudeau has called for that, and so we’ll see how Canada moves forward on this. It’s certainly well within their capacity to do this, and we urge India as well to participate and cooperate in that investigation.”

“It is important to find out exactly what happened.”

Two men chat while seated.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as they attend a plenary session at the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Australian PM Anthony Albanese, who earlier this year hosted India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Australia, refused to comment on the matter at all.

“I don’t talk about Five Eyes intelligence at a press conference, funnily enough,” he said in response to a question about India’s alleged role. “That’s why it’s called intelligence. It’s because we don’t speculate on what the intelligence is. So I don’t intend to talk about Five Eyes intelligence here or anywhere else.”

U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly put out a tweet that made no mention of India at all.

“All countries should respect sovereignty and the rule of law. We are in regular contact with our Canadian partners about serious allegations raised in the Canadian Parliament. Important that Canada’s investigation runs its course and the perpetrators brought to justice.”

On Sept. 12, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian G20 delegation finally left India after an embarrassing extended stay caused by airplane issues, one member of the delegation was absent.

National Security Adviser Jody Thomas had quietly left India to fly to London, U.K. Her mission was to tell the U.K. government in person that Canada’s relations with India were about to get a whole lot worse.

There was also a flurry of conversations between Prime Minister Trudeau and the leaders of the U.S., the U.K. and France.

The Canadian government was aware that requesting support from those allies was no small thing. Canada’s explosive allegations against India come at a sensitive time for all nations involved.

For India, it stains the country’s international image just as it celebrates its moment in the sun, weeks after sending a successful mission to the moon and then hosting the world’s leaders in New Delhi. It now finds itself accused of rogue state behaviour similar to that of Saudi Arabia and Russia.

For Canada’s allies, the accusation presents the risk of alienating the world’s most populous country just when they least want to do so.

Courted by the world

Nuclear power India is the world’s most powerful non-aligned country at a time when the world is increasingly dividing into two blocs. The Modi government has resisted taking sides on the Ukrainian war that has turbocharged those antagonisms.

The West has worked to pull India to its side and has had reasons to hope that was happening.

The United States has finally succeeded in drawing India into something that resembles a formal alliance: the “Quad” of the U.S., India, Australia and Japan.

After a false start in 2007 that petered out just a year later, the Quad was re-established in 2017 but really only began to act cohesively in 2021.

A navy ship cuts in front of the bow of a large ship. A wake trails the boat.
In this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the USS Chung-Hoon observes a Chinese navy ship conduct what it called an “unsafe” Chinese maneuver in the Taiwan Strait on June 3, 2023, in which the Chinese navy ship cut sharply across the path of the American destroyer, forcing the U.S. ship to slow to avoid a collision. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andre T. Richard/U.S. Navy/The Associated Press)

China’s escalating sabre-rattling against Taiwan has lent urgency to the U.S. effort to unite Asia against China’s military threats and its extreme claims over the South China Sea.

India’s chief of defence staff Gen. Anil Chauhan traveled to California in May 2023 for talks on deepening military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

The U.S. will be very reluctant to endanger the progress it has made in wooing India into what looks more and more like an alliance.

India leans to the West

India’s westward drift is being powered by both military and commercial currents.

It is involved in a sometimes-violent border conflict with China that has been much sharper since the Doklam standoff in 2017.

Troops came to blows again last December.

India’s military ties to the West are deepening. The Soviet Union historically was India’s biggest arms supplier and the Russian Federation stepped into that role after 1991. But lately, Russia has needed all the arms it can make for its own forces in Ukraine, and India has begun to make more purchases from the U.S., France and other western countries.

U.S. President Joe Biden, center, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and other G20 leaders arrive to pay their tributes at the Rajghat, a Mahatma Gandhi memorial, in New Delhi, India, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023.
U.S. President Joe Biden, center, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other G20 leaders arrive to pay their tributes at the Rajghat, a Mahatma Gandhi memorial, in New Delhi, India on Sept. 10, 2023. (Kenny Holston/AP)

Arms sales are often the dowry of international matchmaking. Governments buy from countries they expect to be friendly with — especially in the case of sophisticated arms purchases that need long-term maintenance arrangements. Once those purchases are made, they become an incentive to stay friendly.

The West’s tensions with China have also benefited India commercially. India’s economy is now growing faster than China’s for the first time in decades, partly thanks to the “friend-shoring” trend which sees Western companies shift manufacturing away from China to more friendly, democratic countries. 

The suggestion that India has been acting as a rogue state, deploying assassins in a G7 nation, imperils that process.

Few reasons to rock the boat

All of Canada’s closest allies have reasons not to want to alienate India. 

U.S. President Joe Biden told the UN General Assembly on Tuesday that the U.S. is strengthening its Quad arrangements with India and praised it as a force for good.

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is of Indian heritage and who was warmly welcomed by Modi this month, is the son-in-law of Sudha Murthy, the founder of Indian multinational Infosys and one of Modi’s most influential admirers

The U.K. is in the home stretch of free trade talks with the Asian giant. The U.K. badly needs such deals after the self-inflicted trade wound of Brexit.

Australia has had such a deal since the end of last year and now has a larger volume of trade with India than with the U.S. or its close neighbour New Zealand. Its prime minister welcomed the Indian PM to Australia in May, telling one crowd, “Modi is the boss.”

France recently concluded a multi-billion-dollar agreement to sell India Rafale fighter planes and submarines. Modi was France’s guest of honour at this year’s Bastille Day parade.

None of those allies are keen to pick a fight with India at this time.

India number one source of immigrants

India’s initial reaction to Canada’s allegation — the tit-for-tat expulsion of a Canadian diplomat — is unlikely to be the end of this story.

The BJP government of India has successfully fomented a jingoistic nationalism that has its own momentum. It’s currently playing out on Indian media and social media, where Modi supporters are demanding that India make an example of Canada.

This dispute already led to the interruption of free trade talks between India and Canada on September 1. Should the diplomatic conflict escalate, it could affect other aspects of the relationship.

A small Canadian flag is held by someone sitting among a row of people.
India is a leading source of immigration to Canada. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

India is by far the biggest source of immigrants to Canada, with nearly four times as many arrivals last year as the runner-up, China.

More than 35,000 Indian nationals took the citizenship oath in the first six months of this year.

About half of all international students in Canada are Indian citizens. There were more than 300,000 of them studying in Canada at the end of 2022.

If the dispute between India and Canada continues to escalate, it could affect all of that.

During a dispute in 2018, Saudi Arabia ordered all its international students to leave Canada, suspended medical treatment programs, halted flights to Canada by its national carrier and stopped the purchase of Canadian grains.

Modi faces risks as well

Canada’s allies know that Beijing will never condemn India for its alleged transgressions in this case. They also know that one of Beijing’s selling points is that it doesn’t lecture other countries about issues of human rights or rule of law.

Their reluctance to be seen as diplomatic scolds favours New Delhi.

But while India holds many cards in this dispute, it also faces reputational risks.

The Indian government may be tempted to play to nationalist sentiment at home, explicitly or tacitly acknowledging its role and trying to cast it in the same light as the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

But Nijjar is not bin Laden and Canada is not Pakistan (despite comparisons in India’s nationalist media).

And so India has chosen the path of denial — which might be a hard one to sustain if more facts emerge.

Narendra Modi need only look at Mohammed bin Salman for an example of the difficulty involved in living down the reputation of international assassin.

In November 2022, four years after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Biden administration argued in court that as Saudi prime minister, bin Salman should enjoy immunity in the legal proceedings against him.

But he is far from being truly rehabilitated.

The image of modernizer and reformer bin Salman worked so hard to cultivate is in tatters. The world is more aware than ever of his country’s horrible human rights record.

Narendra Modi is at the zenith of his international power and prestige. This incident casts a shadow over those achievements.

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