(Image Credit: Kevin via flickr.com; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Common Licence)
Many Canadians are viewing Canada’s diplomatic spat with India exclusively through a moralistic lens, at the expense of Canada’s geostrategic interests and obligations to other friendly countries.
MEETING OF MINDS
Shortly after I landed in Canada, I had the occasion to have a lengthy chat with an American (of the ‘old stock’ variety, viz., white). The US had unleashed the ‘Shock & Awe’ operation on Iraq just weeks ago, so our conversation naturally veered to that topic. The American knew that I had been living in the UAE prior to coming to Canada, so he was particularly interested in my views on the history of the continuum from 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq. At the time, there was till a hot debate going on as to whether Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. That proved not to be the case later, but at the time, a lot of Americans believed that claim by President Bush and his people, including in the US punditocracy. Side by side, many Americans were also talking about 9/11 being a blowback for America’s foreign policy, so my American friend was curious to know what I thought about that as well. I offered to him that the historical continuum extended all the way back to the Vietnam war; the Soviets had worked to enable American defeat there, to which the Americans had retaliated by enabling a Soviet defeat in Afghanistan via the Jihad.
I had witnessed from India, and later Kenya, the anti-Soviet Jihad and the ensuing mayhem after the Soviet withdrawal from that country when the rival Mujahideen warlords fought pitched internecine battles for control of Kabul. A key point that emerged from my chat with the American was regarding our opinion about President Reagan. While a lot of Americans had immense respect for him for engineering the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, my opinion was that in the process, he had let loose the pernicious genie of fundamentalist Islamism, which had caused (and was going to continue to cause) much damage, destruction and mayhem across the world. Many years after this chat, I read John Cooley’s very well-researched book Unholy Wars, which vindicated my stance. Thankfully for me, my American friend was nimble minded enough to absorb my views that were completely alien to him (as, I suppose, they would have been to a vast number of Americans).
As I reflected on this conversation over the years, I realized that while politicians in power formulate their policies (internal or external) with an eye on their domestic popularity in the immediate term, the impacts of these policies manifest – and continue to reverberate – over a long period after their tenure in power ends. Therefore, mature statecraft requires that these impacts, especially the negative ones, be factored in while formulating any policy. In practice, however, this tenet is often ignored; the allure of political survival trumps pragmatism. Going one step further, the negative impacts of policy are all the more negative when it is motivated by ideological imperatives at the expense of what is materially beneficial to the populace. And finally, no policy is as damaging over the long term as one that is based on a calculation of its potential to yield short-term popularity based on ideological imperatives.
Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision to make a public statement about the alleged involvement of the Indian government in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar has to be viewed and assessed in light of the foregoing. Unfortunately, the debate in Canada so far (both among the public and the commentariat) has veered clear of this aspect; on both sides of the fence, there is a tendency to arrive at a conclusion derived from one’s opinion of the PM as a person. One side is convinced that PM Trudeau must have solid proof of India’s complicity in the killing in order for him to make the accusation publicly, while the other side is equally convinced that, given his past behaviour, PM Trudeau can not only not be trusted but also is to be automatically assumed to be lying. There is hardly a sliver of territory between the two opposing camps, where people are willing to reserve judgement on the matter until more details become available. But in all this cacophony, there isn’t much thought being given, if any, to how this affects Canada’s future and the future well-being of Canadians. This may sound as offensive to some Canadians, but I am of the opinion that our stance on the matter has to be based on a combined consideration of principle and practicality. The trouble is that over the past few decades, we have been conditioned to view issues through the prism of morality exclusively, which is why it is unsurprising that none of the commentary so far on this explosive development has approached the angle of Canada’s geostrategic interests or Canada’s obligations to her geostrategic allies.
THE END GAME
In the absence of that discussion from the geostrategic angle, there is this a quite natural lack of a vision of where this escalation of tit-for-tat measures ends. The two countries have almost followed a script as to the measures: issuing a travel advisory for the other country, India closing its visa offices in Canada, and Canada recalling several of its diplomats stationed in India (reportedly at the behest of the Indian government). I suppose Canada will respond in kind – although the consideration of issuing visas to international students and Temporary Foreign Workers, on whom the Canadian economy relies to an undesirable extent, may stop it from doing so. In that event, Canada would appear to be weak. India has little to lose by stopping Canadian citizens from going to India, while Canada has tons to lose by retaliating on parallel lines.
If it comes to that, I suppose the next step in the escalation would be India banning direct flights between India and Canada. The next step may be a reduction in or cessation of trade, subject to the contractual obligations on both sides. Just as I was typing this, I received a message from a Canadian friend that today’s webinar with an Indian consulting firm is cancelled indefinitely. We may be seeing preemptive action by the private sector before the governments take any official step. In other words, Trudeau may have unleashed forces that he will not be able to control. In geostrategic terms, this can be potentially calamitous.
ALL THINGS CONSIDERED
Let us now examine what these geostrategic concerns are. They fall into two neat categories: internal and external. On the internal front, as I calculated in my article ‘Immigration Does NOT Increase Prosperity’, economic growth in Canada has been moribund for well over a decade; the Compounded Average Growth Rate (CAGR) in per capita GDP in the 10 years from 2012 to 2021 was a measly 0.67% per annum, after you remove the effect of inflation. Looking to the immediate future, according to OECD projections, “Canada will be the worst-performing advanced economy from 2020 to 2030” with CAGR in per capita GDP of only 0.7% per year over the decade. Ominously, “The same is true from 2030 to 2060”. In a nutshell, our economy is likely to be in a generational funk, and changing that prognosis will require all our policies to be firing on all cylinders. Naturally, we would have to hitch our wagon to the economies that are experiencing robust growth, and India & China are going to be the two main drivers of this growth in Canada. Ratcheting up a quarrel with one of the sources of our future growth is ill-advised.
Secondly, the large and fast-growing Indian diaspora needs to be seen as a resource in the above endeavor. Instead, the approach of successive governments over the past 4 decades has, by sowing division in this community and creating ‘irreconcilable differences’, has rendered the community into a liability for Canada: instead of enhancing our relations with their country of origin, they pose an obstacle to cooperation on a multitude of fronts.
On the external side, the plain fact is that China has emerged as a viable geopolitical rival to the hegemonic US, and the latter sees India as an essential partner in creating a counterbalance to China, on matters ranging from defense to manufacturing to diplomatic support. The US is also the most important partner for Canada, on a whole range of issues, not the least of which are defense and the economy. Canada’s stance on India therefore puts the US in a difficult situation in their triangular relationship with Canada and India. By extension, the other allies of the US such as the UK will face the same choice, which they may see as an unnecessary one. This puts a strain on our relationship with our allies, because they see our priorities being at a divergence from theirs. This would have the effect of diluting Canada’s importance on the global scale. Some would argue that we have lost much of our importance already, but I consider arguing over this to be pointless; our focus should be on increasing Canada’s international heft from wherever it happens to be at the moment. In that context, having an openly adversarial relationship with an important country like India, and uncomfortable partnerships with our other allies, pose a hinderance.
CONSISTENCY V/S WHATABOUTERY
At the ‘street level’, it is a common occurrence that when one party points to the inconsistency in the stance or argument of the other party, the latter reacts by calling it ‘whataboutery’. But sometimes, events line up so neatly that this shrugging dismissal becomes impossible – or implausible. This is exactly what happened in this fast-moving situation – as Global News reported on September 21, “RCMP investigate death of B.C. man targeted by China”. So now, we have an ‘apple to apple’ comparison on hand like no other. The question is, what will Trudeau’s reaction be to this revelation? The earlier accusations about China violating Canada’s sovereignty (by allegedly operating police stations in Canada and interfering in Canadian elections), while serious, did not involve a killing allegedly carried out by China. If a similar allegation (which, one must note, is as yet uncorroborated as to the Indian involvement) led to the PM making a statement in the House of Commons accusing the Indian government and the expulsion of an Indian diplomat, then consistency would require that the same should be done in the case of China as well. As a side note, it should also be interesting to see how ferociously NDP leader Jagmeet Singh comes out in relation to the Global News story.
But even those are surface level considerations. Recently, I was discussing the Canada-India spat with a young Canadian, and he said words to the effect that while there are pros and cons of all the arguments in this issue(of alleged Indian involvement in the killing of Nijjar), what concerns him above all things is “how far has Canada fallen, that countries that were, until recently, treated as insignificant in the western world are confident that they can pull off these acts in a western country, confident that they can get away with it?’. To this young Canadian, this showed both capability and confidence. On the other side of the coin, it showed Canada’s lack of ability to control the shenanigans that foreign regimes are (allegedly) up to in Canadian territory and loss of stature that would act as a deterrent for such shenanigans. I think it is worth pondering as to how much of this loss is owing to politicians hankering after votes by pandering to sectarian concerns originating from half way around the world.
FALL FROM GRACE
Since making his initial announcement, PM Trudeau has been comparatively subdued in his words about the issue. It is too early to tell if this is meant to leave room for him to climb down from the high horse that he had jumped on, or something else. One would certainly hope that it is part of an effort to mend fences with India. If not, however, Trudeau now faces the daunting task of producing evidence that incontrovertibly links India to Nijjar’s killing. That is a high bar, and while it is possible to spin a narrative to convince Canadians, the key requirement here is to convince India – which may be next to impossible.
Unless saner heads prevail (or our allies play the role of intermediaries), it is possible that bilateral relations between the two countries will remain in suspended animation for some years (at least). Canada’s agricultural exports to India are sizeable, and it would be difficult for India to find a substitute supplier at short notice in some cases. On the other hand, the massive influx of international students from India fills the coffers of a range of Canadian entities, from institutes of post-secondary education to homeowners renting out their basements to these students, to the homemaker ladies providing them ‘tiffin’ (meals) service. As to which side needs the other more is a matter of detailed studies, but the least that can be said is that Canada needs India enough to want cordial relations – if for nothing else, then at least for the sake of Canada’s own geostrategic interests.
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