Beyond Crisis: The Future of Canada-India Relations in the Indo-Pacific

Jagannath Panda

What does the recent diplomatic incident say about Canada and India’s relationship at present?

Canada-India relations are in deep crisis. Definitely. There is no single way to acknowledge the fact that not only is there a diplomatic crisis, but also a political crisis. This crisis has created a gap between the two top leaders in India and in Canada. It has created a diplomatic row between the Canadian and Indian diplomatic communities. The political leaders or the diplomatic communities are the bridge between the two countries, and when both communities seem to be swaying in antipathy towards each other, then a crisis is definitely there, and we must acknowledge that.

How would you say India assesses the current threat level posed by Sikh separatism both within India and abroad? And how does this assessment play into its foreign policy?

I don’t think India sees the Sikh community or any extremist groups in the Sikh community as a threat to India’s national security planning. I think from India’s perspective, those Sikh communities who believe in extremist courses of action, that are not conducive to the peace and stability of India, India’s relationship with Canada, and the peace and stability of human beings. There is a distinction one has to make—what India is saying and what India is not saying—what India is saying is that the extremist groups, if they have a point of view, are supposed to express it freely without any barriers, but they should not carry out any activities which are against India’s national interest.

This is the distinction that has to be drawn and has to be understood from India’s point of view. I think it would be beneficial, if among the political, diplomatic, and strategic communities, there is clarity of thought on India’s position on the Khalistan moment. But at the same time, what India also needs to do is take these issues seriously, yet not so provocatively. I think what this incident has exposed is that India is becoming quite vocal about its national security issues, but the medium of expression has to be subtle. The diplomatic actions must occur in a smooth and subtle manner which will not affect bilateral relationships.

What does India’s foreign policy look like under Modi and what implications would you say this has for its global engagement?

Indian foreign policy is undergoing a lot of proactive measures. India is becoming much more focused in terms of dealing with authoritarian powers and in terms of strengthening ties with many countries that believe in the liberal and democratic world order. I think in that context, Indian foreign policy is undergoing a lot of changes. But what is interesting about Indian foreign policy is that, if we do not consider the incident that has recently occurred and see the Canada-India relationship more from a holistic point of view, this has been a safe relationship for many years.

This was supposed to be one of the major relationships in the Indo-Pacific age in times to come. I think if we look back to history, Indian foreign policy always looked at Canada much more positively, be it in the United Nations General Assembly, be it in the Commonwealth group of nations, be it during major crises—the Suez Canal Crisis, the Korean War armistice crisis—in all of these issues, in all of these global forums, India and Canada have supported each other. Today we see a crisis has happened, and Indian foreign policy is becoming much more pro-Western-centric. The notion that Canada is not with India and vice versa is definitely a blow to the liberal internationalist order. But I think the way Indian foreign policy is positioned today, and the way Canada is looking at the Indo-Pacific, there is always a bridge to close this gap that the Khalistan issue has opened. I think it’s just a matter of time before we resolve this issue.

Given that we are moving towards a more multipolar world, how would you say India is positioning itself within that world? What would you say are some of the key drivers of its decisions, especially in cases where values and interests might conflict?

Values and interests are quite debatable terms in international politics, as you know. I think values can be interpreted differently. When we’re talking about Western values, Asian values, and values in the Indian context—it all could differ, and this is where the disputes in most of the international issues arise. It’s like that popular statement—one country’s terrorist is another country’s freedom fighter. So we need to really get it right when we discuss ‘values’ and ‘interests’ because these are subjective terms which could be highly debatable in international politics and international affairs.

In that context, I don’t think India and Canada are on the same page on each and every issue even though we tend to believe that values and interests are the concepts which bring India and Canada together as democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific and believe in a liberal international order and rules-based order. But then within that liberal international order and rules-based order, both countries have a different game plan, and different perspectives on many issues, including on what we call values and interests. I think from India’s point of view, India would like to see India’s interests taken with high pride and high respect.

This is what India would expect not only from Canada, but also from a range of Western countries who are partners in the Indo-Pacific, and Canada is no different from that context. Therefore, when you’re talking about India’s values and interests in the Indo-Pacific, it’s not entirely different from the values and interests of Canada or other Western countries.

What would you say are some of the major security challenges India faces in the Indo-Pacific region? How is India working to address them, maybe through bilateral or multilateral engagements?

Undoubtedly it is the Chinese threat. The way China, under Xi Jinping, has emerged as an authoritarian power encroaching upon different countries’ territories, affecting national security issues, and the way China has emerged as a credible maritime power affecting some of the countries in the Indo-Pacific region—that’s a major concern not only for India but also for many Western countries, including Canada. In fact, the China issue and the kind of authoritarian power we have seen in Chinese foreign policy behaviour under Xi Jinping has created an understanding between Canada and India and that should not be lost out in the process.

When we talk about the future of the Indo-Pacific, Canada is a critical country to the region. Therefore India would like to see Canada staying intact as a partner in the future Indo-Pacific construct. More importantly, what we are seeing is a combination of authoritarian powers that are emerging as a much more credible union in the Eurasian regions, which are threatening the security in the Indo-Pacific regions. In that context, both India, Canada and many of the Western countries have got common task to think about—how to preserve this liberal international order that we have been living with. The values, the interests, and the national security-centric issues may be different from each other, but when it comes to peace and stability in the region, that should bind like-minded countries like India and Canada together.

How does India view China’s growing assertiveness and rise in the Indo-Pacific region, and how does China’s rise impact India?

If we consider China’s rise over the last two decades or so, there are two states of China’s rise. One thing is very clear—China is emerging as a revisionist power. But within that, there are two aspects that need to be identified: one, China as an evolutionary revisionist power; the second, China as a revolutionary revisionist power. I think these are the two aspects that India is really concerned about. One is China promising to be an evolutionary revisionist power, trying to reform the Bretton Woods institutions. To that extent, I think India is with China, but at the same time, what we have seen is China not really valuing those evolutionary revisionist tendencies that China envisioned with India as an emerging economy trying to establish a kind of equitable world order. Today, what we see is China deviating from the evolutionary revisionist path and trying to become a revolutionary revisionist power by bringing massive infrastructure, territorial incursion, and maritime revisionism—trying to establish artificial islands in the South China Sea.

China is trying to change the status quo through land and territorial disputes and conflicts—that’s something which has troubled India and many other countries in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s rise as a revolutionary revisionist power trying to change the status quo is something which is really worrisome from India’s point of view. The way China is emerging as a new mercantilist power—that’s a significant development in the Indo-Pacific region that comes as a bigger threat to India. But today we see China emerging as a country where China is having much more of a trade surplus with most of the trading countries in Asia and outside Asia, and that’s not a small development. When we see China as a new mercantilist power, and China a revolutionary revisionist power, that becomes a deadly combination, and that is something which is worrying India, and India is taking a lot of initiatives to emerge as a credible Indo-Pacific power today.

Under the current government in Delhi, we are talking about the “SAGA” concept, which is “Security and Growth for All in the Region.” That means we are talking about an Indo-Pacific order where every country will have equitable participation, we are talking about senior leadership in the Indo-Pacific, and we are talking about security and growth for all. That means let’s securitize the regions and go for economic growth of the regions, and this is where India believes that the liberal international order is beneficial. We have been talking about the progress of the like-minded countries’ coalitions in the Indo-Pacific that could build a stronger liberal international order and could pose a challenge to authoritarian powers like China, and what China is building up with Russia and North Korea. I think these are the issues which have been troubling India for the last decade. India is very mindful of its relationship with Indo-Pacific powers, like the U.S., Japan, and Australia, and some of the other critical Western countries like the United Kingdom and Canada. So, the recent developments in Canada and India relations are really unwelcome.

I would like to see the future of the Indo-Pacific construct. I would like to see strong Canada-India relations emerging from here. Every crisis lives with an opportunity, and I think the crisis that has happened in Canada and India relations is uncalled for, but we have seen that international relations after major crises sometimes take a new turn and progress positively. To that extent, I think, both Canada and India are critical partners and critical flagbearers of the future of the Indo-Pacific. The recent downturn should not really affect the defence ties between Canada and India or the economic ties. There is a huge Indian population in Canada and the defence ties between Canada and India are growing.

There might be downturns, but again, given the kind of foreign policy posturing and future planning Canada is embarking on in the Indo-Pacific, I think India should only be considered as a natural partner. It will take time before we overcome this down moment and then look for brighter Canada-India relations. I think we have a huge task to review the relationship and then look at the downside of it, what could be corrected, and then take the necessary measures to improve the relationship, which could emerge as a stronger relationship or partnership in the age of the Indo-Pacific in times to come.

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