Canada and India: Common ties, common interests
A decade after the first Canada-India Strategic Dialogue, Canada and India’s foreign ministers recently met in New Delhi with a view to improving ties
For foreign policy aficionados, all eyes were on India last month as foreign ministers around the world met at gatherings for both the G20 and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Reporters called the G20 ministerial an “East-West showdown” due to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s concerning global aspirations. At the Quad ministerial in Delhi, India’s Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the United States’ Antony Blinken, Japan’s Hayashi Yoshimasa, and Australia’s Penny Wong gathered to reinforce their shared vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” including in the maritime domain. Ukraine was a sore spot, with India unwilling to join its partners in condemning Russia’s most recent invasion.
Arguably the biggest challenge towards an ‘India strategy’ for the Western world is that India’s foreign policy has favoured non-alignment since the Cold War. India is a founding member of the non-aligned movement, an international organisation consisting of 120 states that do not consider themselves formally aligned with or against any major power bloc. From a Western media perspective, India’s hesitancy to condemn Russia’s recent invasion can make it seem that they support Moscow’s latest incursion. However, from India’s perspective, their historical ties with Russia and reliance on Russian weapons and energy affirms their position on Ukraine and history is indeed a factor. During the Bangladeshi war of independence, for example, the USSR stood by India while the U.S. defended Pakistan, even sending a nuclear powered aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal.
From a Canadian perspective, Canada’s declining relations with India are also of increasing concern. Khalistan, an issue that has kept the Canada-India relationship on ice since 1980, resurfaced during Prime Minister Trudeau’s 2018 visit to India. Trudeau was accompanied by former Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan and former Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Singh Bains. Both Cabinet ministers are also Sikh and the Chief Minister of Punjab, Amarinder Singh, accused them of being sympathetic to calls for the establishment of a sovereign state called Khalistan for followers of India’s minority Sikh religion. In addition, during the 2020-2021 Indian farmers protests, India’s former official spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, Anurag Srivastava, criticized Canadian leaders when Trudeau and former Leader of the Opposition Erin O’Toole voiced support for the farmers’ right to peaceful protest.
In more recent years, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) had been conducting informal referendums across Canada seeking independence for the Punjab. In India, SFJ is banned and its founder, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, is considered a terrorist by the Indian government. India’s High Commissioner to Canada, Sanjay Kumar Verma, has called on Ottawa to crack down on funding for this movement. However, SFJ founder Pannun wrote to Trudeau late last year asking Ottawa to “make it clear to the government of India that Canada will not allow a representative of a foreign government to pressure it into suppressing the free speech of its citizens, nor will it allow fear and hate mongering against Canadian Sikhs.” Meanwhile, Canada’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs David Morrison told his Indian counterpart in November 2022, that while “Canada does not recognize or support unofficial referendums,” people in Canada are “free to assemble and express their views, so long as they do so peacefully and lawfully.”
Canada has also expressed concern about the state of democracy in India, which has been under scrutiny these past years. In 2019, the Indian government made an amendment to the Indian Citizenship Act, allowing for the expedited granting of Indian citizenship to Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis, and Christians fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh, all Muslim majority countries. However, Muslims are excluded under this amendment even though Shia Muslims face discrimination in all three countries mentioned. The Constitution of India guarantees that no law can be made to discriminate against a particular religious group, thus the question remains: why are persecuted Muslims not included in a law allowing other groups to flee discrimination?
Despite the issues noted above, India remains a key player in the Indo-Pacific region and arguably the country best positioned to counterbalance China. China’s population, for example, has peaked at 1.4 billion people, while India’s is expected to peak at 1.7 billion in 2064. India’s labour force is not only larger, but younger: the median age is around 28 years old while China’s median age is 39 years old. In addition, several companies have announced their intention to reshore or ‘friendshore’ their manufacturing operations out of China, and some, such as Taiwanese electronics multinational manufacturer Foxconn and South Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung, have already expanded their operations in India.
Though strengthening relations with India will be challenging for Canada, the payout would certainly be abundant for both. India is Canada’s 9th largest trading partner, and trade with India was at an all time high with over $14 billion of total merchandise trade in 2022. That year, Canada imported $738 million worth of India’s pharmaceutical products, and Canada exported over $1.2 billion worth of mineral fuels, oils, and waxes, and bituminous substances to India. Regarding immigration, the number of Indian citizens who became permanent residents in Canada tripled from 33,828 in 2013 to 118,095 in 2022, dwarfing the next biggest source countries such as China, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the Philippines.
Despite differences of opinion, and often shaky diplomatic relations, fortunately efforts have been made recently to strengthen bilateral relations. In particular, the resumption of the Canada-India Strategic Dialogue between foreign ministers Melanie Joly and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in February 2023, a decade after the first Strategic Dialogue was held, is a positive step. Indeed, from strengthening the already mutually beneficial economic and people-to-people ties between the two countries, to preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific there is much to be gained.
The author is grateful to Het Shah for his contributions and notable expertise on India’s domestic political matters. Het is an engineering graduate from the University of Waterloo and has a keen interest in international relations and geopolitics. He is a native of India and has been closely following developments in his home country since coming to Canada.
About the Author
Lillian Lu is a student at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa. She is conducting research in the area of Canada-China and Canada-Taiwan diplomatic relations under the supervision of Dr. André Laliberté. She has experience working in the federal government, private sector, and in NGOs abroad and previously won an award for her contributions organising a UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific conference in Bangkok.
Photo credit: The Gateway to India/Pixabay/Walkerssk