India tensions underscore Canada’s strategic deficiency in the Indo-Pacific

Vivek Dehejia

How do the recent diplomatic tensions between Canada and India impact bilateral relations between our two countries?

What happened is completely unprecedented. Canada-India bilateral relations have been in freefall since Mr. Trudeau’s explosive allegations in Parliament that India was probably involved in the killing of a Sikh Khalistan activist in BC over the summer. Things went from bad to worse from there with the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions. India took the very major step of stopping all visas for people from Canada. Most recently, India asked Canada to draw down the embassy and the staff at the high commission and the missions by two-thirds.

There was a back and forth where our foreign minister said that India violated the rules of the Vienna Convention and then Mr. Jaishankar said India was entirely within the rules of the convention. He had a press conference in New Delhi, where he dropped hints that India had some evidence of what he claimed was interference by our diplomats, which was the reason for the expulsion of so many of them. It’s fairly ominous. In short, this is the worst it’s been since 1947 when India came into being as a new state, and I don’t see things improving here at all. I think it’s going to get worse.

How do these recent events impact the perception of Canada and India on the global stage, and what are the implications for their standing in the international community?

China is increasingly belligerent, and aggressive, and is a threat to the global rules-based system. The U.S., Canada, Australia, Britain, and Europe more generally are trying to bring India into their orbit more than it has been. Historically, India hasn’t been especially close to the West, but that’s been changing. This comes at a really unfortunate time for Canada in particular, because given the state of what has happened in the last month or so, there really is no strategy that we have now with India. That’s extremely unfortunate.

I think that if you look at what’s coming from the U.S. and the allies, there’s a bit of mixed messaging. They say that they stand with Canada, and that these allegations are very serious, and must be investigated, but they haven’t condemned India, and they want to partner with India. Our allies have been walking a tightrope here. Canada is a long-time ally, but India is an important new ally. It has put them in a very awkward spot.

What role, if any, has domestic diaspora politics played in shaping Canada’s foreign policy decisions in regard to the dispute with India?

It’s played a huge role. The diaspora politics is important across party lines, but particularly for this government. In my view, they have really subordinated foreign policy and Canada’s strategic interests globally, through the lens of diaspora politics, in terms of which groups they would like to placate and where they are a big source of votes for the Liberals. Sikh Canadians, while not large in numbers are heavily concentrated in ridings like Vancouver and Toronto, and therefore, they are consequential, and they have been very loyal liberal voters over the years.

If you look at Trudeau and his track record on the India file, it’s always been to subordinate the big picture which is Canada’s long-term and important interests in Asia, with placating, quite frankly, Sikh voters back home. That happened with his very gaffe-ridden, failed visit to India back in 2018, where—poor optics is really an understatement statement—a former convicted Khalistani terrorist was added to the guest list for the high commission’s final reception. That was hugely embarrassing. Regrettably, I think this government has been worse than most in really prioritizing the diaspora grievances over having a serious, realpolitik, big-picture view, not just of India, but the whole region more broadly.

From your perspective, what are our interests in the Indo-Pacific, or rather, what should they be?

The government’s own Indo-Pacific strategy document, in theory, suggests India should be important and that we have to pivot away from China, but they’ve done the opposite. We have had these ongoing trade negotiations that have gone on for almost 10 or 15 years now. Those are basically dead, because of this present crisis. Canada is not part of the Quad—where are we? We’re just not at that table. We’re missing in action. I think there’s been a huge, missed opportunity here to engage with India. The India of 2023 is not the India of 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. It’s now a rising power on the world stage. It’s once again the fastest-growing major economy in the world. India’s been courted assiduously by the U.S., the UK, Australia, and everyone, really. I think that Trudeau fundamentally misinterpreted our power relative to India. Now, under Modi, India has no intention of being pushed around and bullied by a middle power. They’re at the big table as far as they’re concerned, with the U.S. and so forth. So, I think there’s been a very major failure by our government on this file.

In your view, could we have approached the allegations against India differently?

Had this been done quietly through diplomatic backchannels and through allies it would have been very different. Even if, for example, Trudeau had said, not on the opening day of the fall session of parliament, we’re investigating credible allegations that certain foreign powers have perhaps been involved with activities here in Canada, which are problematic, or something to that effect, and then pursued it quietly, through allies, through backchannels, we wouldn’t have had this current downturn. We already had a very poor relationship after his failed visit to India.

Let’s not forget that India took very unkindly to what they saw as Trudeau interfering in their internal affairs when he was commenting in favour of the farmer protests. In India a couple of years ago, Punjabi farmers were protesting, and Trudeau made his announcement to a diaspora gathering. They didn’t take kindly to that. Then, of course, there was a certain amount of schadenfreude in India when Trudeau invoked emergency powers to crack down on protests here. From the Indian perspective, Trudeau was trying to tell India to talk and negotiate with these protesters but look what he did a a few months later.

It’s been very poorly handled by Trudeau. I can see no possible reason, apart from playing to the diaspora gallery back home, why he would make the announcement on the first day of Parliament. There was no need for that. This could have been handled quietly and diplomatically, the way it’s handled with allies. You stand up in Parliament and accuse North Korea, Russia, or some kind of rogue state. The world’s largest democracy, who is supposedly our ally? That made no sense, in terms of geopolitics and strategy. It made sense in terms of purely diaspora grievance politics.

How could Canada and India collaborate to promote regional stability and security in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in light of China’s growing influence? How might this dispute impact Canada’s position and/or interests in the Indo-Pacific?

I just think that is so remote a possibility currently. I don’t think that will happen if Trudeau is Prime Minister, quite frankly, or if Modi is at the other end, but I think Modi here is less important. This isn’t about Modi. Everyone in India is united on this—they did not take kindly to this yet-unproven allegation. I simply cannot envisage at this point, a world where Trudeau and Modi can sit down at the same table and do any meaningful deals that see Canada and India cooperating in the region. I think we will have to wait for a new government for that to happen. Modi is facing re-election next year. He’s extremely popular. If anything, the current spat plays well for him.

He has this kind of strong image and he’s now standing up and taking very aggressive steps against Canada, saying, look we won’t be pushed around, we won’t be bullied. That’s playing well for him at home. I just don’t see how, at this point, anything can possibly happen. If we look back, it doesn’t have to be this way. At the time that Stephen Harper was Prime Minister, there was a real uptick in Canada-India ties. Harper and Modi met several times, they had a real camaraderie and that came through at their various meetings. That was never the case for Trudeau.

How has India’s influence in international geopolitics evolved over the past few decades and how can India’s rise potentially serve as a counterbalance to China’s growing influence?

Broadly speaking, as India’s economy has grown over the last 20 or 30 years, its power has grown on the world stage. China is what it is now because it’s had 30 years’ worth of 10% growth. So, they’ve got huge economic might and a huge military right now. India is only a fraction, its military is nowhere near China’s, but then there is the soft power advantage of being the world’s largest democracy—that does carry some moral weight. India is becoming more important, whether anyone likes it or not, I mean, who else is there in Asia that could be a credible possible counterweight to China? India and China share a border together that’s about 1/3 of the world’s population, they have their own dispute as well. So, if not India, then who? Not Pakistan, which is now sort of imploding and is basically a failed state. Which other countries are there in that region?

I think India understands that they now are more important to the West. Jay Shankar, the foreign minister, has said, my job is to look after India’s national interest and do what it takes. So, if we have to buy cheap Russian natural gas, we will do that. We also want to be friends with the U.S. They’re not going to be signing on, as just purely a Western partner. They are going to be doing deals with Russia. Unless someone shows them a cheaper alternative. Where else will India, which is very energy-hungry, get such cheap natural gas? I think we have to be realistic in terms of what we can expect from India here. I mean, they’re looking after themselves, which means that they will, selectively, issue by issue, work with the West to try to contain China, but also keep close ties with regimes we don’t like—Russia, obviously.

As an Indo-Canadian, I’m really pained and saddened that we’ve come here. Canada and India, on paper, should be natural partners. We’re both democracies. We both have the same Westminster system. We have a huge diaspora here. There are very strong people-to-people ties, but somehow, we’re now stuck in this, which I think will be a slow-burn crisis, especially now with war in the Middle East. I see no happy end for this.

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