A wrench in the West’s Indo-Pacific Plans: What to make of Indo-Canadian Tensions
The allegations made against the Indian government are deeply serious not only for Canada, but also for its allies. They may rob the West of a key strategic asset; a reliable partner which could be a realistic alternative to economic reliance on China.
On September 19th, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a serious allegation against India. The alleged assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar with the involvement of agents of the Indian government and its fallout not only has implications for Canada, but for the West generally.
Many countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, France, and the EU have recently published Indo-Pacific strategies. A common theme among them is that engagement in the region must be based on shared liberal values and commitment to a rules-based international system. Another similarity is made clear by the fact that Western governments have opted to call these strategies Indo-Pacific to highlight the centrality of a strong relationship with India. Even Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, released just last year, vowed to strengthen ties with India. India benefits from being a convenient replacement for the economic benefits China once provided and a strong bulwark against creeping Chinese influence throughout the region. India was set to be one of the prime beneficiaries of “friend-shoring” over the next few years.
However, the alleged assassination of Nijjar throws a wrench in things. An extrajudicial killing of a foreign citizen in their own country is one of the most egregious violations of a country’s sovereignty and international law that there is. A state willing to breach this to silence critics is not one which seeks a “rules-based international system.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have enjoyed a surprising lack of scrutiny over the past years by using China as a sort of diplomatic cover. Modi himself has ridden a wave of increasingly hostile Hindu nationalism to power. From his complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots to the passage of the 2019 Citizenship Act and the violence that followed, Modi has inflamed religious tensions, weakened democratic institutions, and infringed on civil liberties.
Canada makes a stark contrast. Throughout the recent wave of right-wing populism throughout the world’s democracies, Canada has remained staunchly progressive. Trudeau’s government is a reliable partner and source of stability throughout the recent international turbulence. It should also not be overlooked how this alleged assassination is uniquely offensive to Canadians, especially new Canadians. Throughout its history Canada has been a welcoming country for those fleeing conflict and persecution. Nearly one in four Canadians was born outside of Canada and in recent years, nearly a fifth of new arrivals to Canada were born in India. This includes an increasing number of refugees. In 2022 Canada accepted 3,469 refugees from India, up from only 20 in 2014 and that number is only projected to keep rising. For new Canadians, the Indian government’s actions are frightening. It strikes at the heart of the hope that many have in Canada of finding a new, peaceful home. It means that even in Canada, they may not escape the persecution and violence they are feeling, and this feeling is not limited to Indian-Canadians.
However, the lack of support the international community has given is stark and revealing. Apart from acknowledging the seriousness of the accusations, most of Canada’s allies have avoided a strong response, in fear of damaging their own ties with India. The American response was so lackluster that the United States was forced to clarify its position and reveal that the intelligence came partly from the United States. This lack of support has of course not gone unnoticed by the Indian public, where the diplomatic dispute has been framed as Prime Miniter Trudeau as a cocaine addict making a foolish political gamble to build domestic support before the next election. This, despite the fact that Canada is unlikely to see an election before 2025.
What should we take away from this episode?
India must be held accountable. Only sustained international diplomatic pressure will compel the Indian government to participate fully in a transparent investigation. If international law is not upheld, other hostile actors will see that they too can violate these principles with impunity. Failure to hold India to account will also embolden Modi to become more belligerent and potentially disruptive.
The West needs to reassess their approach to the Indo-Pacific and recognize the risk in putting so much emphasis on a partner which may very well prove to be unreliable and a liability in the years to come. It is clear now that a strategy built on shared values is not realistic. While deepening economic ties to India is unavoidable, developing dependencies is not. It is important for Western policy makers to see Modi’s India as it is and not as we wish it to be.
Finally, countries like Canada must take their security seriously. Embedded in this episode are awkward, difficult questions for Canadians. Traditional Canadian foreign policy has been focused on soft power being a polite, popular middle power, but this no longer seems sufficient in the current global climate. Geography is no longer enough to keep its population safe. Canada is increasingly feeling the pressure to build its hard power back up and the stubbornness Canada has shown to meeting its NATO requirements has made its allies grow weary of standing up for what many see as a free-rider. Canada also simply remains an unimportant geopolitical player, especially in comparison to India. Therefore, in times of crisis, Canada must stand alone.
If the allegations made by Trudeau are backed up by solid evidence in a public forum, which they certainly ought to be, the international community must be ready to defend the rules-based international order, despite the alternative being so much easier.