US walks the thin line on Canada-India rift
The US faces a challenging position in the India-Canada diplomatic conflict over the killing of a Sikh Canadian citizen
The diplomatic conflict between India and Canada over the recent killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh Canadian citizen wanted on terror charges in India, places the United States (US) in a difficult position, given its close relationships with both countries. Canada, its northern neighbour, has been a steadfast ally with whom the US shares a rich history. The US’s alliance with India is relatively new but it has been lauded as a defining relationship of the 21st century by multiple presidents. Further complicating the issue is the possibility that Canada received the intelligence on the killing from the US, a notion partially confirmed by US ambassador to Canada, David Cohen, who informed a Canadian media outlet that it was “shared intelligence among Five Eyes partners” that suggested potential Indian involvement. (Five Eyes includes Britain, Australia and New Zealand besides Canada and the US.)
This possibility undoubtedly contributes to the measured tone of the US response to Trudeau’s charge. Up to this point, the two high-ranking officials who have weighed in on the issue, national security advisor Jake Sullivan and secretary of state Antony Blinken, have struck a balance in their statements by expressing support for Canada while refraining from criticising India. Now, more than a week after Trudeau’s explosive accusation, three distinct perspectives are coming into focus.
The first perspective emerging is that repairing the damage to India-Canada relations could require a Herculean effort. Few speeches by a national leader during times of peace have had as destructive an impact on bilateral ties in recent decades as Trudeau’s remarks. What triggered an exceptionally strong reaction from India was the historical context. The strained relationship between New Delhi and Ottawa can be traced back to the early 1980s when the Khalistan separatist movement was at its peak in Punjab. India accused Canada of harbouring terrorists and their supporters who undermined India’s sovereignty and caused death and destruction in Punjab. The memory of the Air India Kanishka jet bombing remains vivid in the national consciousness, and a majority of Indians feel that Canada has not taken sufficient steps to bring the culprits to justice.
The second perspective relates to the impact the dispute is having on the Indian diaspora, not only in Canada but also in the US. Already, both Sikh and Hindu Canadians have complained of being targeted and feeling insecure. The diplomatic fallout is likely to have an impact on Indian immigration to Canada, which has surged exponentially in the past decade, more than tripling from nearly 32,000 in 2013 to over 118,000 last year. India also sends the highest number of students to Canada compared to any other country.
The third perspective is the challenging position in which the US finds itself due to the rift. Some in India and the diaspora are incensed by the possibility that the US may have shared intelligence with Canada. They hypothesise that Washington might have directly or indirectly guided Trudeau to raise the issue, possibly as a means to curb India’s increasing global influence.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the India-Canada dispute came at a very inopportune moment for the US, potentially fracturing the coalition Washington has been carefully building in this 21st century. It is in America’s interest that India does not get any closer than it already is to Russia and China. Longtime watchers of US-India relations know how much the US has invested in its relations with India, especially since the days of the civil nuclear deal. Given this and the complexity of this conflict, the challenge for the US will be to determine whether its relations with India and Canada and its strategic international objectives can best be achieved by staying on the sidelines, acting as a referee, or getting directly involved in the problem-solving.
Frank F Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal