TORONTO — When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood up in Parliament and said India may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen, the muted international response offered a lesson in modern geopolitics.
India, it seems, may be too powerful to alienate.
None of Canada’s most important allies — not the U.S., Britain, Australia or New Zealand, all knitted tightly together in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance — echoed Trudeau’s allegations.
They’ve declared their concern. They’ve urged full investigations. But none have stepped up to condemn India for its alleged involvement in the June slaying on Canadian soil of a Sikh separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
But it’s more than that. Modern India has a fast-growing economy that many analysts believe will overtake Japan and Germany to become the world’s third-largest by 2030. It has become a major power in world affairs, with more than 1.4 billion people and one of the world’s largest militaries.
All that makes it hard for Canada’s main allies — which are also some of India’s main partners — to loudly speak out.
“I think Australia, U.S. and U.K. did about what was expected,” said Janice Stein, a political scientist at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.
Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, agreed: “As long as the West needs India to counter China, it is likely to look away.”
On Monday, Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the killing outside Vancouver by masked gunmen of 45-year-old Nijjar, who had been wanted by India for years. Canada also expelled an Indian diplomat.
A day later — and after India ramped up the confrontation by itself expelling a top Canadian diplomat — Trudeau toned down the rhetoric, telling reporters that Canada was “not looking to provoke or escalate.”
“PM tempers criticism as allies decline to condemn India over slain Sikh leader,” read the front-page headline Wednesday in Canada’s The Globe and Mail newspaper.
The government’s allegations are particularly awkward now for the U.K., which is seeking a free trade deal with India.
“These are serious allegations. It is right that the Canadian authorities should be looking into them,” said British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain.
But he made clear that the killing would not come up in the trade talks, saying “these are negotiations about a trade deal and we are not looking to conflate with other issues.”
Trudeau discussed the slaying with Sunak and U.S. President Joe Biden in recent weeks, according to Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly.
If the allies’ responses were muted, Joly’s office and the White House denied news reports that Canada, in the days before Trudeau made his allegations, had lobbied the U.S. and other major allies to condemn the killing.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said any reports that the U.S. had rebuffed Canada were “just flatly false.”
“We were deeply concerned by these allegations Prime Minister Trudeau laid forward and remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners,” Kirby said. “They’re investigating and that should proceed unimpeded.”
He added, however, that the U.S. relationship with India “remains vitally important, not only for the South Asia region but of course for the Indo Pacific.”
Still, the Biden administration seems to be offering more moral support than anything substantive. It might want to let things play out as a bilateral issue between Ottawa and New Delhi.
“It’s embarrassing” to Washington, said Robert Bothwell, a historian and professor at the University of Toronto. But “the U.S. has larger interests.”
“This is the same kind of thing that Putin does,” he said, referring to enemies of Russian President Vladimir Putin who have been killed in Russia and abroad, including in the U.K.
Nijjar, who was was born in India and had worked for years as a plumber in Canada, was killed in the parking lot of a Sikh temple in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver. He was wanted by Indian authorities, who had long said he had links to separatist terrorists seeking the creation of an independent Sikh nation inside India. While Nijjar advocated for a Sikh homeland, he repeatedly denied allegations he had any ties to terrorism.
Canada has yet to provide any evidence of India’s involvement in the killing. But a U.S. official said Tuesday that Trudeau’s willingness to speak out was taken by the White House as an indication of the Canadian leader’s certainty about what had been found. The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Canada is one of the few countries in the world that unabashedly speaks out in defense of human rights and the international rule of law. It also has few qualms about taking on major powers.
In 2018, for example, China-Canada relations nosedived after China detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor. Those arrests came shortly after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei and the daughter of the company’s founder. Canada made the arrest at the behest of U.S. authorities who accused Meng of fraud.
Relations have not rebounded even after a prisoner swap that saw China release the Canadians in exchange for Meng in 2021.
Also in 2018, the Saudi government expelled Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada’s foreign ministry tweeted support for an arrested Saudi activist. It took five years for Canada and Saudi Arabia to finally restore full diplomatic relations in May.
Trudeau also clashed with former U.S. President Donald Trump, who vowed to make Canada pay after Trudeau said he wouldn’t be pushed around in trade talks with the U.S. Trump responded by insulting Trudeau, saying he was ”meek and mild,” words that shocked Canadians.
Now the stakes are higher, and it’s unclear — at least publicly — who Canada can count on for full-throated support.
“Is Canada alone?” asked Bothwell. “That is obviously a worry because throughout Canada’s existence it has relied on the protection of first the British and then the Americans.”