Canada needs diplomats in India to help navigate the "extremely challenging" tensions between the two countries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday in response to demands that Ottawa repatriate dozens of its envoys.
India reportedly wants 41 of 62 Canadian diplomats out of the country by early next week — a striking, if largely anticipated, deepening of the rift that erupted last month following Trudeau's explosive allegations in the House of Commons.
The prime minister bluntly spoke of "credible" intelligence linking the Indian government to the shooting death in June of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a 45-year-old Sikh leader India has long assailed as a terrorist.
The demand, first reported by the Financial Times, comes less than two weeks after the Indian government first called on Canada to establish "parity in strength and rank equivalence in our diplomatic presence."
Canada has a much larger diplomatic corps in India, owing in part to the fact it's a country of 1.4 billion people, compared to 40 million in Canada — about 1.3 million of whom are of Indian origin.
Trudeau would not confirm the reports Tuesday, nor did he sound inclined to acquiesce to India's request.
"Obviously, we're going through an extremely challenging time with India right now," Trudeau said on his way to a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill.
"That's why it's so important for us to have diplomats on the ground, working with the Indian government, there to support Canadians and Canadian families."
Canada, he continued, is "taking this extremely seriously, but we're going to continue to engage responsibly and constructively with the government of India."
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said largely the same thing.
"In moments of tension, because indeed there are tensions between both our governments, more than ever it's important that diplomats be on the ground," Joly said.
"That's why we believe in the importance of having a strong diplomatic footprint in India. That being said, we are in ongoing conversations with the Indian government."
During Tuesday's daily briefing at the State Department, deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel was at pains to avoid exacerbating tensions any further.
"We are — and continue to be — deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau and we remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners," Patel said, a message the U.S. has had on repeat for weeks.
"It's critical that Canada's investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice. We also have ... publicly and privately urged the Indian government to co-operate in the Canadian investigation and co-operate in those efforts."
Patel also demurred on the potential impact of an escalating tit-for-tat exchange of diplomatic staff on the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, a key element of U.S. efforts to mitigate China's growing geopolitical influence.
"I certainly don't want to get into hypotheticals," he said. "As it relates to our Indo-Pacific strategy and the focus that we continue to place on the region, that effort and that line of work is going to continue."
David Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, has already confirmed that the allegations were buttressed in part on intelligence gathered by a key ally from the Five Eyes security alliance, which includes the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, along with Canada.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India's external affairs minister, confirmed last week that the subject came up in his meetings in Washington, D.C., with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser.
Trudeau's allegation "was not consistent with our policy," Jaishankar told a panel discussion Friday hosted by the Hudson Institute.
"If his government had anything relevant and specific they would like us to look into, we were open to looking at it. That's where that conversation is at this point of time."
Jaishankar went on to note that the issue of Sikh separatists living in Canada had long been "an issue of great friction," notably after the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182, the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history.
"In the last few years, it has come back very much into play, because of what we consider to be a very permissive Canadian attitude towards terrorists, extremists, people who openly advocate violence," Jaishankar said.
"They have been given operating space in Canada because of the compulsions of Canadian politics."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2023.
— With files from Mickey Djuric in Ottawa.