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Ties between Canada and India sour after Sikh separatist leader was assassinated

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A global diplomatic fight highlights the growing prominence and power of India. It is the world's most populous nation now with a growing economy, and it was a big deal when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said evidence linked India's intelligence service to the killing of an Indian man exiled in Canada. India denied that claim. Each country took some diplomatic moves to show displeasure with the other, and the United States faced a dispute between a historic ally and a country that it really, really wants as a friend. Chietigj Bajpaee has followed all of this. He is a senior fellow for South Asia at Chatham House, which is a London-based global affairs think tank.

CHIETIGJ BAJPAEE: I mean, it's important to note that no one has yet been charged with the killing three months after the murder. Canada is yet to release the intelligence that it's compiled against India. And Trudeau's statements, I think, have still been relatively nuanced. He's referring to credible allegations, not evidence, and potential and not yet confirmed linkages. If the allegations are proven to be true, it definitely points towards signs of a more assertive and muscular Indian foreign policy. India's intelligence services have been highly active in neighboring countries for decades. But to be complicit in the assassination in Western countries, you know, a G-7, NATO member state, I think to a degree would be a game changer. And it's important to note that India is seeking the status of a major global power, as noted by its recent G-20 presidency. So I think India is a country that is more prone to taking offense to challenges to its status and sovereignty, and it's also more prone to taking retaliation, which we've seen with this recent, you know, tit-for-tat escalation.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in a comparison that you draw in your writing. You note that China - or some people in China anyway - feel that they have a natural position at the center of the world, that they have been the most populous country, that they are a thousands-of-years-old civilization, that they just by right should be a major, major world power, if not the leading world power. What is the Indian version of that story?

BAJPAEE: There's a degree of similarity. I mean, both China and India view themselves as civilizational states, so they view themselves as countries that deserve to be respected as major global powers on the world stage. And they're also countries that have suffered - look to the history of colonialism. China talks about the 100 years of humiliation. India has, you know, a similar 200 years of humiliation under British colonial rule. So I think these two factors - the fact that India views itself like China as a major - you know, a civilizational state, a rising global power, and also a country that has been wronged - it creates the ingredients for it to be highly sensitive to any infringements upon its status and sovereignty and highly prone to taking retaliatory actions.

INSKEEP: Do you see a situation where each country, in the absence of proof of its case, is leaning back on kind of its central narrative? I mean, Canada is saying, wait a minute, we have the rule of law here. You can't go around assassinating people. And India is saying, wait a minute, you're a Western country. You can't be telling us what to do.

BAJPAEE: Yeah, I think right now at present, there don't seem to be any signs of any form of rapprochement between both countries. And they seem to be doubling down on their position. And I think, you know, this is where countries like the U.S. will have, you know, an important role to play. I would perhaps, you know, draw parallels to what we've seen, the role the U.S. has played in managing tensions between other, you know, important partners such as South Korea and Japan.

INSKEEP: Has it been smart then for the United States not to pick up and repeat the Canadian allegations?

BAJPAEE: The U.S. and other countries - you know, Australia, the U.K. - they've all had a relatively muted or restrained response to the allegations. And I think short of there being any definitive evidence linking the Indian government to the assassination, the response is likely to remain muted, and any criticism will really be made behind closed doors. That being said, I think we have seen a somewhat, you know, harder line being taken. So, you know, Blinken had noted that the investigation really needs to run its course. But we also saw National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan saying that, you know, no country has any special exemptions. And it's important, you know, again, to keep in mind that India - it's a country of growing strategic importance. Last year it passed the U.K. in terms of GDP. It's passed China in terms of population. It's seen to be, you know, a bulwark against the rise of China. And Washington obviously doesn't want to jeopardize the time and energy that it's invested in its relationship with India.

INSKEEP: Chietigj Bajpaee is a senior fellow for South Asia at Chatham House. Thanks so much.

BAJPAEE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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