The U.S. Shouldn’t Worry About the India-Canada Rift
Washington is committed to partnership with New Delhi, despite U.S. intelligence cooperation in the Hardeep Singh Nijjar case.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s accusations about India won’t affect New Delhi’s ties with Washington, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar delivers a speech in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s place at the U.N. General Assembly, and the United States imposes visa restrictions on individuals in Bangladesh ahead of elections.
Why Trudeau’s Accusations Won’t Affect U.S.-India Ties
With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments last week, Canada—a U.S. treaty ally—publicly accused a foreign government of involvement in the assassination of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil, Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. It’s not clear why Trudeau went public when he did; his government may have concluded the allegations were so serious that they needed to be shared with the world, he may have sought to shame a government with which Canada has experienced tensions for months, or he may have wanted to shore up his domestic popularity.
In most circumstances, such an allegation could imperil relations between the United States and the foreign government in question. But in this case, the foreign government is India, a close strategic partner of the United States. If Washington concludes that Ottawa’s allegations are true, it likely won’t damage U.S.-India relations—despite the fact that the United States itself reportedly provided intelligence to Canada that helped Ottawa conclude New Delhi may have been involved.
Washington has a strong interest in maintaining the partnership with New Delhi, even if the India-Canada crisis sparks some new tensions. The U.S. foreign-policy ecosystem is fully behind partnership with India, a sentiment that reaches all the way to the top. U.S. President Joe Biden has deemed the relationship one of the “most consequential” of the 21st century. In recent years, the two countries have expanded cooperation in a range of spheres, including science and technology, clean energy, higher education, and trade.
Shared concern about China is the biggest motivating factor for the U.S. commitment to working with India. As long as competition with China remains a major focus of U.S. foreign policy, the United States will see India as an essential counterweight. After all, India now has the world’s largest population, one of the largest armies, and one of the most rapidly growing economies. New Delhi also has its own long-standing competition with Beijing.
The U.S.-India relationship has withstood shocks and challenges in the past decade: a diplomatic spat over the U.S detention of an Indian consular official, a trade war, and India’s refusal to take a stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. Although none of these crises was as serious as what Canada accuses the Indian government of orchestrating, U.S.-India ties seem stronger than ever—and they have momentum. U.S. officials speak privately about how new agreements and initiatives are emerging so quickly that it’s hard to keep up with them all.
Another reason why U.S.-India relations should escape relatively unscathed is a fundamental reality: Interests, not morals, drive international relations. Some close U.S. partners, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, have carried out extrajudicial killings abroad, which have provoked tensions with Washington without dooming the relationships. Of course, not all alliances are foolproof. U.S. relations with NATO ally Turkey have declined in recent years as they have experienced strategic divergences. The two countries also lack the type of broad-based partnership that ensures goodwill.
Canada’s allegations have galvanized many within the country’s nearly 800,000-strong Sikh community. Over the weekend, dozens of people demonstrated outside of Indian diplomatic facilities in Canada, some waving the flag of Khalistan, the independent state sought by Sikh separatists. If this anger brings out pro-Khalistan protesters in the United States, New Delhi could increase pressure on Washington. Twice this year, pro-Khalistan protesters tried to attack the Indian consulate in San Francisco, and the United States condemned both incidents.
However, the United States, like Canada, would cite the right to assembly and freedom of speech as reasons for refraining from cracking down against Sikh protesters if they express nonviolent separatist sentiment. But Washington has even been reluctant to curb Sikh extremism: It hasn’t formally designated violent Sikh groups, whether based in the United States or elsewhere, as terrorist organizations. Since the assassination of Nijjar, the FBI has reportedly warned Sikh activists in the United States of possible risks to their lives.
The India-Canada crisis could lead to some uncomfortable conversations between Washington and New Delhi at an otherwise warm moment for their relationship. But strategic imperatives and a deep partnership with strong support from all sides mean that the risk of such tensions plunging the relationship into crisis remains low.
Read more: FP’s Howard W. French argues that the United States could lose credibility over its approach to the India-China spat.
What We’re Following
Jaishankar speaks at UNGA. India’s government had a strong disincentive to bring attention to Trudeau’s accusations at this year’s U.N. General Assembly meetings, which wrapped up this week. New Delhi wanted to use the event to showcase recent achievements, such as its lunar landing and G-20 presidency—and not have them be eclipsed by chatter about allegations of a state-sponsored assassination.
It’s not surprising that Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar didn’t specifically mention the situation during his speech on Tuesday. But he did reference Trudeau’s accusations indirectly when he said that “political convenience” should not drive “responses to terrorism, extremism, and violence”—implying that Trudeau leveled his allegation in order to gain more support from influential Sikh voting constituencies.
It was a clever tactic: Jaishankar hid a subtle slam at Canada—a move sure to be popular back home in India—in a broader comment meant to depict New Delhi as an advocate for the global south, one of its core foreign-policy messages during its G-20 presidency.
U.S. imposes visa restrictions in Bangladesh. Last Friday, the U.S. State Department announced it would begin imposing visa restrictions on unidentified “Bangladeshi individuals” who are hampering free and fair elections. The announcement, which comes three months after the State Department released details about a new visa policy, said the sanctioned individuals include members of the ruling party, political opposition, and law enforcement.
Bangladesh’s national elections are scheduled for January. It appears that Washington believes the environment in the lead-up to the vote is not encouraging, and it wanted to send a tough message that it’s serious about not wanting to see a rigged election. The move comes less than two years after the United States sanctioned several leaders of the Rapid Action Battalion, a powerful paramilitary force in Bangladesh, due to serious human rights concerns.
Friday’s visa announcement will spark further debate about why the Biden administration is taking such robust steps to promote rights and democracy in Bangladesh at a moment when it has said relatively little about threats to democracy in India and Pakistan. It appears that the White House is more comfortable pushing the issue in Dhaka—even risking souring relations—than it is in New Delhi or Islamabad.
Maldives prepares for election runoff. On Saturday, voters in the Maldives will return to the polls for a presidential election runoff after the first round of voting on Sept. 9 failed to produce an outright winner. They will choose between current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and opposition candidate Mohamed Muizzu. The geopolitical aspects of the election have received plenty of attention: Solih is viewed as pro-India and Muizzu pro-China.
A record-low number of voters turned out for the first round, fueling commentary in the Maldives press about the imperative of addressing disenchantment among the electorate. There is good news, however: So far, international election observers give the election process high marks. An observer mission from the British Commonwealth countries issued a statement saying it worked “transparently and efficiently”—an encouraging assessment in a region where several countries have elections routinely marred by fraud allegations.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky by Stephen M. Walt
- No, the World Is Not Multipolar by Jo Inge Bekkevold
- America Can’t Stop China’s Rise by Tony Chan, Ben Harburg, and Kishore Mahbubani
Under the Radar
A new trade and connectivity corridor agreement involving India, countries in the Middle East, and the European Union was announced on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in New Delhi this month. One might have expected that China would rail against the new deal, and Washington has suggested it as an effort to provide an alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. But at least initially, the most vocal opponent of the project is Turkey, which is not a party to the agreement.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that the corridor won’t succeed without Turkey. (For his part, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan cast doubt on the new project’s ability to prioritize “rationality and efficiency.”) But instead of lobbying for Turkey to join, Erdogan has vowed to create an alternative corridor linking Europe, Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—an ambitious plan, given Iraq’s instability.
India’s key role in the connectivity corridor is likely not why Turkey opposes it. Its criticism seems to stem from unhappiness about being left out and fears that the route will run through Greece, a longtime rival. Still, it’s significant in this context that India-Turkey relations have recently experienced some tensions—revolving around Turkey’s criticism of India’s policies in Kashmir, Erdogan’s pan-Islamist views, and Turkey’s growing relations with Pakistan.
Journalist Deep Halder lambasts U.S. policies in Bangladesh in the Print, arguing that Dhaka “isn’t willing to take dictations from Washington or become a willing puppet. A quickly-changing, multipolar world does not need Captain America,” he writes.
In the Express Tribune, former Pakistani official Sahibzada Riaz Noor criticizes the country’s subsidy policies. He writes that the “subsidy system in Pakistan, in absence of reliable data, seems vastly distorted in favour of the already endowed, undeserving.”
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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