ANALYSIS: What’s Next for Canada-India Relations and Ottawa’s Indo-Pacific Objectives

Experts say Canada faces a kind of diplomatic isolation that results from years of poor foreign policy
ANALYSIS: What’s Next for Canada-India Relations and Ottawa’s Indo-Pacific Objectives
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, on Sept. 10, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
Rahul Vaidyanath

Canada’s relationship with India is now arguably as bad as it’s ever been. Experts say Canada faces a kind of diplomatic isolation that results from years of poor foreign policy, and specifically relating to India, it’s due to not taking seriously an issue of extreme sensitivity for that country. 

“I don't think that we will see any improvement in the relationship so long as Trudeau and Modi are in office,” an expert on Indo-Canada relations, Vivek Dehejia, told The Epoch Times on Sept. 23.

Mr. Dehejia, economics and philosophy professor at Carleton University, added that if tensions are somehow de-escalated, the result will be a “very low-level relationship” between Canada and India going forward.

International trade expert Eric Miller, who has made a number of trips to India as a representative of think tanks and business organizations, explained that Canada has shown a naive attitude toward some of the biggest challenges India faces. In particular, India has long directed criticism at Canada for not cracking down on the Sikh separatist movement in the country.

“This issue was raised with me even before Mr. Modi came to power, so there's a long-term thread in the upper levels of Indian political, business, and intellectual circles around concerns about Canada's handling of this issue of Sikh separatism,” Mr. Miller, president of the Rideau Potomac Strategy group, said in a Sept. 25 interview.

He said the difficulty in Indo-Canada relations is due in part to a dichotomy stemming from the fact that Canadians have freedom of speech while India views the situation as Canada harbouring terrorists who advocate secession.

Mr. Dehejia confirms that “there's a high level of frustration from the Indian side that they don't perceive much cooperation from Canada in extraditing people who are facing serious charges in India.”

Mr. Trudeau's Choice

Mr. Dehejia points out two ways to handle the allegation of an extrajudicial killing—privately through diplomatic channels or going public, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did in the House of Commons on Sept. 18.

“I think Canada's allies feel they've been put into an awkward situation by Trudeau’s very public mode of making these allegations. … You know, all of these guys are really walking a diplomatic tightrope, in terms of what they say,” he said.

“No one has actually come out and condemned India outright—none of the allies,” Mr. Dehejia added.

Mr. Miller says Mr. Modi is doing whatever he can to defend the security of India. And doing so helps him politically. 

“This has become an election issue, but one that helps Modi. And all of this leaves Canada in a situation where its closest allies are not overtly out willing to stand by its side,” he said.

Mr. Miller said that although the Indo-Canada relationship has succeeded with people-to-people ties, deep structural issues exist that impede the relationship, and he doesn’t think that will change anytime soon.

“This is a rift whose foundations are not just based on one speech and one allegation. But it's based on years of complicated bilateral relations where two sides have come at some very fundamental issues for their countries from different angles,” he said.

Dead on Arrival

In its new Indo-Pacific strategy, Ottawa called India “a critical partner in Canada’s pursuit of its objectives.” But now, some of the things Canada was supposed to do to grow its engagement with India, such as an Early Progress Trade Agreement, have been shelved.

Mr. Dehejia said the strategy is “DOA.” He added that Canada’s international stature as a respected middle power has diminished and that it is now enmeshed in a “battle of two unequal powers”—with India’s star on the rise.

Former foreign affairs minister Marc Garneau says Ottawa has to catch up to its allies and be more present in the Indo-Pacific, reported The Canadian Press in a story published Sept. 25. He argued that Global Affairs Canada has less Asian expertise than Canada's peer countries do.

Mr. Miller also advocates much greater engagement in the region.

“You need serious effort on building relationships with the mid- to larger-size countries in the region. Like, get a free trade deal with Indonesia over the line, build a deeper relationship with Vietnam, get closer to Japan, figure out how to build a richer relationship with the Koreans,” he said.

“Send ministers to the region. A lot of the criticism of Canada [in] the Indo-Pacific is people never show up.”

Lessons in Foreign Policy

Mr. Miller says Canada’s foreign policy and presence on the global stage has not reacted to a world where the Indo-Pacific is rising while Europe, the Atlantic, and North America are becoming relatively less important.

“This is where it matters, that it [Canada] hasn’t stepped up and done a lot of things that it needed to do, that it hasn't found a way onto the [United Nations] Security Council in 20 years, that it hasn't paid its 2 percent [of gross domestic product] dues on defence,” he said.

Mr. Miller said one big reason Canada is not included in the AUKUS nuclear submarine pact alongside Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States is that it doesn’t spend enough on defence.

“In essence, what you're doing—constructively taking part and pulling your weight in these international engagements—is you're filling up the goodwill bucket,” he said.

Canada spends much less than the NATO-required 2 percent of gross domestic product on defence. It spends 1.27 percent, while the British and Australians spend slightly more than 2 percent, and the United States spends more than 3 percent.

Richard Shimooka, senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a defence policy expert, says that “diplomatic capital must be earned.” 

In a Sept. 22 article in The Hub, besides discussing Canada’s waning diplomatic clout internationally due to not meeting NATO defence spending requirements, he noted, regarding the relationship with India, that other countries have historically been more willing to confront separatists.

“It is likely that Canada will need to adopt a harder stance towards Khalistan [Sikh] separatist elements’ activities inside the country in order to calm bilateral relations between the two states over the long term,” Mr. Shimooka wrote.

Canada can learn from Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore that what matters in the region is “a more pragmatic interest-based approach on how to deal with the challenges facing the Indo-Pacific,” wrote Stephen Nagy, professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, in the Japan Times on Sept 21. 

This means focusing on trade agreements, infrastructure, and connectivity, he explained.

“Ottawa can no longer pursue foreign policy based on an outdated idea of a middle-power identity that is based on values-oriented diplomacy, a practice that evangelizes ideas and values that continue to be important for Canada’s domestic audience but not so much for those in the Indo-Pacific region,” Mr. Nagy said.

Rahul Vaidyanath is a journalist with The Epoch Times in Ottawa. His areas of expertise include the economy, financial markets, China, and national defence and security. He has worked for the Bank of Canada, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., and investment banks in Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles.