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Storm in the Indo-Pacific: Fallout From Canada’s Clash With India

Xavier Delgado Headshot 2024

Canada-India relations are reeling from the announcement that Canadian security agencies had uncovered evidence linking the Indian government to the assassination of an Indian-born Canadian citizen in British Columbia earlier this year. Canada Institute Associate Xavier Delgado outlines what's at stake for both countries and their allies in the Indo-Pacific.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canadian security agencies have obtained credible evidence linking the Indian government to the unsolved murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and notable advocate for Sikh separatism. 

Nijjar was shot by two masked assailants outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia earlier this year in an attack that Canada alleges has since been connected to “agents of India.” The Indian foreign ministry decried the allegations as “absurd” and, in the aftermath of the announcement, exchanged tit-for-tat expulsions of senior diplomats from Ottawa and New Delhi.

The dispute has shined a sudden spotlight on the Canada-India relationship, which, prior to the Nijjar incident, had been trending in a positive direction. Geopolitical developments, economic ties, and demographic trends over the past ten years had set the stage for closer cooperation between the two former British colonies. India’s prominence in Canada’s 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy and high-level negotiations between the two states for an early progress trade agreement (EPTA) gave supporters of the relationship plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

Now, the allegations that the Indian government orchestrated the assassination of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil have cast a cloud of doubt over the path ahead for the bilateral relationship.

Trade will likely be the first major casualty of the fallout, with negotiations for the EPTA being put on hold. Both countries declared that they would pause trade talks with each other earlier this month and Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng has indefinitely postponed a trade mission to New Delhi that had been planned for October. The negotiations were a notable part of Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which listed the EPTA as a critical step towards a larger comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA) that would bolster trade ties between the two countries.

The stalled trade talks have put a $17 billion bilateral trade relationship under strain. Canadian merchandise trade with India grew from approximately $3.87 billion in 2012 to $10.18 billion in 2022, with major increases in the export of Canadian energy products and import of Indian consumer goods. In that same year, services trade between the two countries measured $6.96 billion. 

A reduction in the flow of Indian immigrants, which constitute almost one in five of all recent immigrants to Canada, could be even more devastating than a deterioration of trade relations. Canada recently reached the 40-million-population milestone off an influx in inbound migration following the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, Canada’s population growth, which is the fastest in the G7, is mainly driven by migration: four in five new Canadians from 2016 to 2021 were immigrants. 

Indian immigration to Canada has tripled since 2013, overtaking and pulling away from the Philippines and China as the top source country for new Canadians in the 2021 census. That census also counted 1.3 million ethnic Indians living in Canada, over 1 million of whom resided in British Columbia or Ontario. 77% of that group – 771,790 people – follow Sikhism, making Canada’s Sikh population the largest in the world outside of India. 

India also tops a notable subcategory of immigration: international students. 34% of international students in Canada from 2015 to 2019 came from India, providing a critical source of revenue for Canadian academic institutions; by 2022, that share had grown to 40%. These numbers directly translate to the labor force, with Indian graduates from Canadian programs accounting for the largest share of post-graduate work permit holders in 2018 over China (20%) and the United States (1%).

Beyond the bounds of Canada-India relations, the dispute between the two countries may throw a wrench in the emerging Indo-Pacific framework of institutions and alliances. India, with its economic might and security capabilities, has been hailed by the United States and democratic allies as a regional counterweight to China. Washington included India as a founding member of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and the freshly-anointed I2U2 bloc with Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Both countries are also founding members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD or “the Quad”), a strategic security dialogue that includes Japan and Australia.

Canada, for its part, was not invited to join the Quad or IPEF at the conception of either group, nor was it included alongside Five Eyes allies Australia and the United Kingdom in the AUKUS security pact. After inviting Canada to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership during the Obama administration, the United States opted to not join the agreement, leaving both countries without a shared major economic or security institution in the Indo-Pacific. 

A chilling of relations with India could hinder Canada’s ability to join the network of Indo-Pacific institutions, both because regional allies will be wary of angering the Modi government and because India itself could block Canadian membership in certain groups. Ottawa is clearly aware of India’s influence and power in the region. The Canadian Indo-Pacific strategy, published in late 2022, has an entire section dedicated to India that reads: “India’s strategic importance and leadership – both across the region and globally – will only increase as India – the world’s biggest democracy – becomes the most populous country in the world and continues to grow its economy.”

However, Canada is not the only party that stands to lose from this dispute. The allegations can damage India’s public image as a democratic nation committed to a rules-based order or, more critically, its perception as a trustworthy ally in the competition against China. Canada’s Five Eyes partners could reevaluate intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation with India if Canadian officials uncover definitive proof of India’s involvement in Nijjar’s murder. 

Disputes between allies are common and, in the diverse roster of countries that constitute the emerging Indo-Pacific architecture, should be expected. Governments disagree frequently over trade policies, environmental practices, and other issues that don’t pose a threat to their diplomatic relationships. The Canada-India dispute is unique in that the severity of the allegations, the economic and demographic ties between the two countries, and the geopolitical context in which the situation unfolded have raised the stakes for all parties, including the United States.

To prevent spillover damage to the nascent Indo-Pacific alliances, Washington will need to approach the situation carefully. Beijing benefits the most from in-fighting between major US allies, but regardless of how the coming weeks play out, both Canada and India will still have poor relations with China and good relations with the United States. One reason for this is the values that all three countries nominally share. US leaders should remember this and remind Ottawa and New Delhi that the path forward must be paved by justice and a commitment to due process: to deviate from those values would be to bring relations between all three countries into uncharted and volatile territory.

About the Author

Xavier Delgado Headshot 2024

Xavier Delgado

Associate, Canada Institute;
Research Director, Washington Forum on the Canadian Economy
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Canada Institute

The mission of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute is to raise the level of knowledge of Canada in the United States, particularly within the Washington, DC policy community.  Research projects, initiatives, podcasts, and publications cover contemporary Canada, US-Canadian relations, North American political economy, and Canada's global role as it intersects with US national interests.  Read more