Canada this week divulged it had intelligence possibly linking Indian government agents to the murder of a separatist Sikh leader – the kind of news that usually sparks uproar among democratic allies. Not this time.
India is being courted by the United States and others as a counterweight to China, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s rare attack just days after the G20 Summit in New Delhi is putting Western nations in an awkward position.
“India is important in Western calculations for balancing China, and Canada is not,” said Ottawa’s Carleton University professor of international relations Stephanie Carvin.
“This really puts Canada offside among all other Western countries.”
Mr Trudeau announced on Monday that Canada was “actively pursuing credible allegations” that Indian agents were potentially involved in the murder of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June.
At that point, Ottawa had already been discussing the matter with key allies such as those in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, which also includes the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
The results have been muted. Britain refused to publicly criticise India and said bilateral trade talks would continue as planned. Indeed, a statement from Foreign Secretary James Cleverly about the affair did not mention India by name.
Britain is in a difficult position, caught between supporting Canada and antagonising India, a country it wants as a trading partner and ally to help confront China, said India expert Chietigj Bajpaee of the Chatham House think tank in London.
“Short of there being any definitive evidence of India’s involvement, I think the UK response is likely to remain muted,” he added. A free trade deal would be a “major political win” for both India and Britain.
White House National Security Adviser John Kirby said the US was “deeply concerned” and encouraged Indian officials to cooperate in any investigation. India rejected the idea it was involved in the murder.
The Washington Post reported Mr Trudeau had pushed for a joint statement condemning India at the Group of 20 summit and was turned down.
Mr Kirby said “any reports that we rebuffed Canada in any way whatsoever are false, and we will continue to coordinate and consult with them on this”.
The muted response to Mr Trudeau’s allegations is stark when compared to the uproar after Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by nerve agent in England in 2018.
Britain, the US, Canada and others threw out more than 100 Russian diplomats to punish Moscow for an attack it has always denied carrying out.
“Our Five Eyes partners are understandably reluctant to really wade into this, given everybody’s interest in advancing ties with India, in the context of the ongoing tension with China,” said Mr Wesley Wark of the Centre for International Governance Innovation think tank in Waterloo, Ontario.
“It’s a bit of a waiting game. If the Canadians come up with very solid evidence about egregious Indian state involvement in an assassination attempt, I think we’ll hear more from our allies in support,” he said.
With allies unwilling to contemplate any kind of joint condemnation of India, the Canadian options now look limited – at least until it can provide incontrovertible evidence.
“If we don’t get our allies to support this, Canada’s not going to be able to do a great deal to move India,” said former Canadian Security Intelligence Service head Richard Fadden.
“And I think the greatest thing we can aspire to in the short term or term is to get India not to do this again.”
The diplomatic row escalated on Thursday when India’s official visa processor, BLS, in Canada said that it had been told to stop handling applications, before taking down the notice.
“Important notice from Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 September 2023, Indian visa services have been suspended till further notice,” BLS International had posted on its website.
There was no immediate comment from India’s foreign ministry.