Washington walks on a tightrope as the diplomatic row between Ottawa and New Delhi deepens.
Canada recalled two-thirds of its diplomats from India after it threatened to revoke the diplomats’ immunity.
Canada expelled an Indian diplomat who it said was the head of the Indian intelligence agency in the North American country.
India asked a Canadian diplomat to leave its country, escalating the row as talks to forge a free trade agreement were frozen.
The spat between Canada and India – two of Washington’s closest allies – stemmed from the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a known leader of the Sikh movement in Canada campaigning for a free and independent Punjab state in India.
In June, the Indian independence leader was shot dead outside a Sikh temple in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Four months later, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blamed New Delhi’s intelligence agents for the assassination of Nijjar, an accusation which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vehemently denied.
Canada was angry that India had violated its sovereignty after assassinating Nijjar on its soil.
Canada is home to about 1.4 million people of Indian origin, one of the largest overseas Indian communities. More than half are believed to be Sikh followers, the highest population outside Punjab.
However, India considered the Sikh independence movement as a “terrorist” organization after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.
Former Prime Minister Gandhi was killed by one of her Sikh bodyguards after she ordered a crackdown on an uprising in Punjab where a Sikh independence movement was trying to carve out a free state called Khalistan.
India said most of the Sikh followers who continued to advocate for a free and independent Khalistan were based overseas and were trying to revive the insurgency.
It wanted Canadian authorities to clamp down on the independence movement. Trudeau promised in 2018 that Ottawa would not support any separatist movement in India.
However, Canada respected the Sikhs’ freedom of speech and would not stop them from holding protests and peaceful demonstrations against India.
There was no clear evidence India was behind the killing, but Canada made a severe accusation after the United States gave intelligence information about the assassination.
The US was backing Canada on the issue, but there were also efforts to smoothen ties with India.
In a way, Washington is in a quandary over whether to take sides between its two closest allies in confronting a rising China in the Indo-Pacific region.
It is in a no-win situation as it hosts this month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in San Francisco.
Washington is more interested in shoring up support for Israel in the deepening crisis in the Gaza Strip.
APEC might be an economic forum, but Washington is also more interested in rallying support for Ukraine in the face of a fresh offensive from Russia.
Both Canada and India are its closest allies, and both support Israel in its fight against Palestinian Islamist militants, the Hamas.
But the assassination of Nijjar in Vancouver could complicate the situation as Ottawa has accused New Delhi of killing a “terrorist” on its soil.
If the US supports Canada, India could counter that Washington had killed in drone attacks many “terrorists” on foreign soil after the September 11 attack in New York.
If the United States remained silent on the Canada-India spat, it could anger Ottawa, a member of the Five Eyes intelligence cooperation.
Washington cannot afford to take sides. Its interests are not only in Israel and Ukraine but more in the Indo-Pacific region.
The US needs India to counter China’s growing influence not only in the region but in other parts of the world, like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was created in 2000 to replace the Shanghai Five.
India is in a position to put pressure on China and to oppose Russia’s efforts to reshape relations between the “Global South” and the “Collective West.”
India is also an essential member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) – Australia, Japan, India, and the United States.
Washington needs both Canada and India to advance Western interests not only in the Indo-Pacific region but also in other parts of the world.
It is in a difficult situation. It has to balance its interests delicately.