The U.S. is caught in the middle of a diplomatic war between India and Canada, after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegations that Indian agents were behind the killing of a Sikh Separatist leader in the country.
The explosive allegation comes amid the Biden administration’s charm offensive toward India as a key bulwark against China, with many questioning the U.S. relationship with India’s controversial prime minister, Narendra Modi.
The U.S. reportedly worked closely with Canada in investigating the apparent murder on its soil. President Biden has not publicly commented on the allegations, highlighting the tricky balancing act of standing by Canada without alienating India.
All eyes are now on whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will present evidence to support his claims and just how bad relations between Ottawa and New Delhi will get before the U.S. is forced to step in.
Since Trudeau’s public allegations against India on Tuesday, relations between the two countries have hit rock bottom, while Canada has received no public support from its allies backing up the claim.
Vivek Dehejia, professor of economics and an India-Canada policy expert at Carleton University in Ottawa, told The Hill that Canadian officials and Trudeau assumed they would get “unconditional support from their allies and from the U.S. in particular.”
“They have been disappointed by the level of support that they have received. If you look carefully at [national security adviser] Jake Sullivan’s recent comments, he’s walking a tightrope because Canada’s very dramatic allegations have put the U.S. and other NATO allies in a bind,” he added.
On Thursday, Sullivan offered a vague statement in support of Canada’s “undertaking in this investigation” and said the U.S. has also “been in touch” with India’s government.
“It is a matter of concern for us. It is something we take seriously. It is something we will keep working on, and we will do that regardless of the country,” he told reporters at the White House on Thursday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was “coordinating” with Canada on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Friday, and called for India to cooperate in the ongoing probe.
“We want to see accountability. And it’s important that the investigation run its course and lead to that result,” Blinken told reporters in New York.
The Washington Post reported earlier this week that several senior officials of Canada’s Five Eyes allies, of which the U.S. is a member, were informed of the allegations ahead of the G20 summit in New Delhi. Nevertheless, no public comment was made by any senior leaders among the group’s members, which also include the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.
According to Sadanand Dhume, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute, the Biden administration has no intention of sacrificing its relationship with India over an “ill-judged accusation” by Trudeau.
Biden has made closer ties with India a foreign policy priority in its efforts to counter China’s influence in Asia, inviting Modi for an official state visit in June, when he also addressed Congress.
That was the same month that masked gunmen killed Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in Vancouver. The 45-year-old separatist leader had previously been designated as a terrorist by India.
India has long maintained that Canada has turned a blind eye toward extremist elements against India, especially Khalistani secessionists who demand a separate homeland for Sikh in the Punjab region.
“The fact is that the Canadians have allowed some pretty dodgy people to use Canadian soil and to spread violent messages,” Dhume said.
“It’s not as though there’s deep sympathy for Canada given that Trudeau has not handled this really well. He’s really been forced into a corner here.”
Trudeau has also come under scathing criticism from some former officials back home.
Omer Aziz, a former foreign policy advisor for Trudeau’s administration in Canada, wrote in The Globe and Mail that Ottawa’s foreign policy initiatives have never understood South Asia or India, but were instead aimed at winning over the sizable ethnic Sikh vote at home.
“Under Trudeau, the foreign policy choices have been subordinated to domestic diaspora politics, given the importance of the Sikh diaspora in Canada, which have been important liberal voters. Trudeau, who has a minority in [Canadian] parliament, is only in power because of the [New Democratic Party] led by Jagmeet Singh,” Dehejia told The Hill.
Singh is the first Sikh to lead a major federal party in Canada, and helped Trudeau form a minority government last year after the Liberals failed to win a majority in parliament.
In New Delhi, the Canadian allegations have united a fractious political landscape.
“The Indian response has been ferocious, and it’s been uniform,” said Dhume, adding that it has dredged up memories of the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and Air India bombing the next year, both of which were linked to Sikh separatists.
Even Modi’s main opposition, the Indian National Congress has backed his government’s stance on Trudeau and Canada in a rare show of unity.
Pressure is now on Trudeau to reveal how Canada obtained the intelligence that led it to so publicly suggest the Indian government was behind the killing.
The prime minister doubled down on his claims Thursday, again saying Canada had “credible reasons to believe that agents of the government of India were involved in the killing of a Canadian on Canadian soil.”
Reuters reported that an unnamed senior Canadian government source said Ottawa worked “very closely” with the United States on the intelligence assessment.
The White House did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.
“Canada may not be in a position to reveal” where it got the information, Dhume said, but the Indian view is that “if you’re not in a position to corroborate … then don’t make the allegation in public.”
Yet ultimately it may depend on the U.S. to settle the growing feud, which has resulted in India halting new visas for Canadians and expelling a Canadian diplomat.
“Only the U.S. has the ability to solve this as only they have both trust and influence in both Ottawa and New Delhi,” Dhume added.