Canada’s defence minister isn’t saying whether the federal government’s Indo-Pacific strategy could be reassessed in light of heightened tensions with India over allegations that Indian government agents may be linked to the murder of a Sikh activist on Canadian soil.
The allegations raised publicly by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week have sparked a diplomatic row with India, which is considered a critical strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific for Western countries like Canada who are seeking to counter China’s rise.
Canada had been seeking deeper trade, defence and immigration ties with India before the “credible intelligence,” as Trudeau called it, was first raised with Canadian officials.
Yet Defence Minister Bill Blair, speaking to Mercedes Stephenson in an interview that aired Sunday on The West Block, suggested Canada will continue to pursue those partnerships while the investigation into allegations continues, calling the relationship with India “important.”
“We understand that this can be, and has proven to be, a challenging issue with respect to our relationship with India,” he said.
“But at the same time, we have a responsibility to defend the law, defend our citizens, and at the same time make sure that we conduct a thorough investigation and get to the truth.”
If the allegations are proven true, Blair said “there is a very significant concern that Canada will have with respect to the violation of our sovereignty in the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil.”
Blair said the Indo-Pacific strategy was still an critical one for Canada, and has led to an increased military presence in the region and commitments for further patrol capabilities.
The strategy commits $492.9 million over five years toward those military priorities, out of a total of nearly $2.3 billion over the same period.
Canada last week also committed another $650 million in military aid to Ukraine over the next three years, which will include 50 new armoured vehicles that are to be built in London, Ont. The announcement, timed with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Canada on Friday, brings Canada’s total pledged military aid to the war-torn nation to $2.4 billion and total aid to more than $8 billion.
The funding comes as Canada’s military continues to face a recruiting shortage and delays in procuring new equipment to replace aging naval and air fleets.
Blair said he will work to ensure money flows back into the Canadian military as aid continues to be sent abroad to Ukraine.
“I know some of the challenges that the Canadian Armed Forces is having with respect to people, with respect to the platforms that they work on and the equipment that they need,” he said.
“I am absolutely committed to working with them and to ensure that we give the Canadian Armed Forces the people, the tools and the support that they need to do the important job of defending Canada’s interests at home and abroad and upholding our responsibilities.”
Concerns about domestic military spending were fuelled further by a memo this month from Bill Matthews, the deputy minister of national defence, and Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre titled “Reductions to Defence Spending,” which alerted members to work underway to find “efficiencies” in the defence operating budget.
The memo stresses expenditure reviews and eventual reductions are “not about doing more with less or arbitrary cost-cutting,” but will ensure money is directed toward “top defence and government priorities.”
Blair would not directly promise that there won’t be budget cuts within his department, only saying the reviews were aligned with a whole-of-government approach to reduce wasteful spending.
“It’s our responsibility to Canadians to make sure that we’re spending their tax dollars as efficiently as possible,” he said.
He said his top priority since assuming the defence minister’s position in July is to address the personnel shortage in the military.
“Our obligations to NATO, to the Indo-Pacific and right at home is critically important to Canadians,” he said.
“I have to make sure that the Canadian Armed Forces have the people and the resources they need to do the important job that we ask of them at home and abroad.”
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