Personal Diplomacy Beyond Trudeau’s Skills: The Failed G20 Visit to India

Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent G20 summit in India was a disaster, adding to his failed 2018 visit. The G20 summit consists of the world’s 20 largest economies, with India as this year’s host.

Trudeau returned home after an unexpected two-day delay due to aircraft troubles. Typically, such an incident would be a considerable embarrassment for any government leader. However, it turned out to be only a minor challenge in a string of reverses Trudeau faced in India.

But before delving into the reversals, let’s examine the background. One of the most important features of G20 summits is international trade. Canada and India have been negotiating a comprehensive trade deal since 2010, but the past eight years have seen minimal progress under Trudeau. So the India visit inside a trade summit represented a great opportunity for Trudeau to come face to face with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and supercharge the efforts. But Canada, without an explanation, suspended trade talks with the host country just a week before the summit.

Some might blame Trudeau’s behavior during his 2018 trip, when he condescendingly wore Indian attire with his family day after day. It left a lasting negative impression. The Indian people, proud and sensitive to displays of colonial superiority, have not forgotten this incident. Trudeau’s declared preference for China, India’s primary regional rival, figures prominently too. And India is also acutely aware of Trudeau’s opposition to hydrocarbon energy development in Canada, which could have provided a valuable and stable supply of natural gas and petrol to India, the world’s fifth-largest economy.

A cause for considerable worry is the Khalistan conundrum. Canada has a robust Sikh nationalist presence — a faction that has, time and again, wielded influence over government. This influence morphs into a dire security liability when looking back to instances of terrorist activities hatched on Canadian land by Khalistan radicals. The dreadful Air India bombing of 1985; a heart-wrenching spectacle of terror, perpetrated by such militants, is etched in our memories. The unhealed wounds of past demonstrations of violence find reaffirmation in recent events. Recently, the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was disturbingly commemorated by some of these nationalist elements. Moreover, Canada has ignored perilous rhetoric on its soil, advocating for the slaughter of Indian diplomats in Canada, following the murder of a wanted Khalistani terrorist in British Columbia. These events have placed additional strains on the complex Indo-Canadian friendship. 

Many in India view Justin Trudeau as sympathetic to Khalistani interests, whether or not this perception holds true. But it makes things worse that the Trudeau government is exclusively propped up by Jagmeet Singh, well known for his Khalistani sympathies. 

Trudeau seemed to anticipate the challenges awaiting him, as evidenced by his decision to pause the already stagnant trade talks with India, followed by his equally unexplained absence from the main social event of the G20 —a reception honouring India’s PM, the host. The trip could have been used to repair the rift between Trudeau and Modi, but slogans alone won’t fix it. The matter requires serious skill, which Justin Trudeau does not posses. Instead of patching things up, the opposite happened. 

It’s understandable why Prime Minister Modi addressed Trudeau in stern terms, urging him to confront the Khalistani terrorists threatening Indian diplomats. This short conversation took place, as Modi described it publicly, on the sidelines of the G20. Typically, the sideline is a term suggesting a position on the margins, removed from the plays in the field, reserved for lesser players.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s response further alienated him from Indian leadership. He defended his inaction by invoking liberal democratic values, suggesting that radical Khalistanis in Canada have the right to express their views, even when issuing murderous threats against Indian diplomats. In his best schoolteacher tone, Trudeau suggested Indians don’t follow the Rule of Law, and claimed that Canada champions freedom of expression and the right to protest, while seeking to prevent violence and rejecting hatred. But Indians are aware of the hypocrisy in the response. They know how Trudeau mistreated Canadians protesting federal COVID mandates, which only added insult to injury in India.

Later, when asked about Canada’s contribution to this year’s conference, Trudeau hesitated before mentioning “gender language” and “reflections” on indigenous issues. Trudeau could have made these vacuous “contributions” remotely, and avoided further alienating such an important trading partner and the world’s largest liberal democracy.

Improved diplomatic relations and achieving a comprehensive trade deal with India, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, would have been the ideal outcome.  A comprehensive trade agreement with India could have significant economic benefits—potentially adding close to 7 billion dollars to struggling Canadian businesses.

In hindsight, Trudeau might regret not staying home in hiding, much as he did during the 2022 Trucker’s Convoy protest in Ottawa. Such a decision would have spared him, and by extension, the country, from the humiliations and failure of this trip.

And so the stalled, flightless plane serves as a metaphor for Trudeau’s India G20 experience.

Regardless of how Trudeau attempts to spin this fiasco at home, its failure is undeniable, and even his own parliamentary caucus will take notice. Ultimately, Trudeau’s words won’t matter. Nothing Trudeau can say will likely make things right with India. They’re aware, as are Canadians, that Trudeau can ultimately do nothing to alienate Jagmeet Singh, his NDP government coalition partner. 

It will be up to the next Canadian prime minister to face the arduous task of repairing the Canada-India relationship.

Marco Navarro-Genie is, with Barry Cooper, co-author of Canada’s COVID: The Story of a Pandemic Moral Panic (2023)

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