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Biden’s efforts to woo India challenged by assassination allegation

At the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi this month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi draped a shawl over President Biden’s shoulders before the two men strolled amicably side by side at a memorial site for Mohandas K .Gandhi. Biden appeared frequently with Modi at the summit, seen as a sort of coming-out moment for India, and the two men often exchanged warm gestures.

These moments of bonhomie, which follow a rare state dinner for Modi hosted by Biden in June, reflect the president’s long-standing efforts to woo Modi, a key strategic partner in countering China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. That effort is now complicated by Canada’s explosive allegation that Indian officials may be behind the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia.

Since the allegations were made public on Monday, the White House’s approach has been to walk a tightrope: offering support for Canada’s investigation and urging India to cooperate, while avoiding any dismissal of the India or Modi. Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement Monday in the Canadian House of Commons that authorities are pursuing “credible allegations” of links linking India to the killing, the investigation continues.

The White House did not issue a joint statement with Canada because it was a Canadian investigation, according to a senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. The official said it would be unusual for the United States to stand with another country when announcing the results of an internal law enforcement investigation, adding that the United States would not would not expect another country to do the same.

The White House has no concerns about the Canadian-led investigation and has not taken issue with the manner in which Trudeau chose to announce the results, the official said.

The White House is awaiting the conclusion of the formal investigation before commenting, but it has rejected criticism that the United States is trying to avoid antagonizing India because of its important strategic role. The senior official noted that the White House had expressed “deep concern” over the allegations and called those responsible to account.

The move led to a rapid deterioration in relations between Canada and India, including the expulsion of an Indian diplomat in Ottawa. New Delhi responded by expelling a Canadian diplomat.

“Brand India” – and Modi – take center stage at G20 summit

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who had advocated for the creation of a separate Sikh state in India’s Punjab region, was shot dead in his vehicle in June by two masked gunmen outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple in Surrey, England. British Columbia. Nijjar, who was born in India but based in Canada, was president of the temple. Trudeau did not provide details in making these allegations.

The growing feud puts Biden in a tricky position as he seeks to maintain strong relations with one of the United States’ closest allies, Canada, and a major strategic partner, India. Human rights activists have previously challenged Washington’s growing proximity to India, citing Modi’s crackdown on dissent and his persecution of religious minorities.

More broadly, Biden’s embrace of India highlights a broader tension in Biden’s foreign policy, as he talks about strengthening the world’s democracies and confronting its autocracies, but he has also allied with undemocratic regimes in the hope of building a global coalition to push back against China’s influence.

In this context, Trudeau’s allegations have put the White House in a particularly difficult situation. “The Biden administration has made extraordinary efforts to double down on the emerging strategic convergence between the United States and India, while minimizing any possible divergence on shared values,” said Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director of the Asia Program. of the South at the Carnegie Endowment. for international peace.

“Now, Washington will have to strike a balance between ostracizing a valuable bulwark against Chinese expansionism and accommodating the concerns of a major NATO ally,” Vaishnav added.

A White House statement Tuesday reflects that balance.

“We are deeply concerned by the allegations raised by Prime Minister Trudeau. We remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners. It is essential that Canada’s investigation continues and that the perpetrators are brought to justice,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “We urge the Indian government to cooperate with the Canadian investigation and ensure those responsible are held accountable.”

In the weeks leading up to the G20 summit, senior officials from the United States and other countries privately raised the issue of Nijjar’s killing with Indian officials, according to a Western official who spoke under the guise of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject.

Other attacks on allied soil in recent years have been followed by coordinated efforts to respond, sometimes with the expulsion of diplomats and intelligence agents. After the British government accused the Kremlin of carrying out a nerve agent attack on British soil in 2018, the United States, Canada and many European countries expelled Russian diplomats in a show of solidarity.

Any Canadian move to launch a similar effort would be complicated by the fact that, unlike Russia, India does not have adversarial relations with Canada’s allies, many of whom have reason to curry favor with Modi’s government . India is one of the most populous countries in the world, occupies a strategic position in the Asian subcontinent and is home to a growing technology sector.

The United States and India recently launched a high-level initiative on defense and emerging technologies that will encourage, among other things, the joint production of defense equipment, including military aircraft engines, long-range artillery and armored infantry vehicles.

Biden has made big overtures to woo India in recent months. He invited Modi to a state dinner – only the third of his presidency – and avoided publicly criticizing India’s slide toward illiberalism and Modi’s persecution of religious minorities.

“The Biden administration is likely to downplay or perhaps ignore the issue, to avoid having to choose between NATO ally Canada and emerging security partner India to secure “continued assistance in the fight against China,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at Rand Corp. and former American intelligence officer.

“Much will depend on how the facts publicly revealed in the Canadian investigation are revealed, but if these allegations are true, they pose perhaps the most serious threat to India’s international reputation in its history,” Grossman said.

As Washington and Delhi step up security cooperation to counter China, the Biden administration has been willing to overlook its differences with India over Russia’s war in Ukraine, another top White House priority. “They’ve moved away from trying to change India’s position on Russia to maintaining cooperation with China,” said Lisa Curtis, director of Indo-Pacific security at the Center for a New American Security.

U.S. diplomats said their Canadian counterparts briefed them on the allegations before Trudeau made them public and that they hoped to get more clarity soon.

“We have been in close contact with our Canadian colleagues on this matter,” a senior State Department official said Tuesday, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity. “We are very concerned about these allegations. We believe it is important that a full and open investigation be conducted, and we urge the Indian government to cooperate with this investigation.

Biden has often vowed to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy, and he has spoken eloquently about the existential challenge between democracy and autocracy around the world. In some ways, he presented this approach as a contrast to his predecessor, Donald Trump, who seemed willing to forge ties with autocrats while disrupting long-standing U.S. alliances with European democracies.

White House officials say Biden prefers to raise human rights concerns privately with other leaders, something they say he did when Modi was in Washington for the state visit in June.

At the same time, the Biden administration has prioritized building relationships to counter China and said, despite Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, China remains the most serious long-term challenge for the world order.

Biden recently visited Vietnam, for example, to strengthen relations with Hanoi despite the Vietnamese Communist Party’s treatment of its citizens. Human rights groups estimate that the Vietnamese government holds around 200 political prisoners.

Biden has faced similar challenges before. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” after the CIA concluded he ordered the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Shortly after taking office, Biden declassified a U.S. intelligence report that found bin Salman was responsible, but he stopped short of directly penalizing the Saudi royal family.

Since then, Biden has worked to reestablish a relationship with Saudi Arabia that is crucial to U.S. interests. Biden visited Bin Salman in Jeddah and greeted him with a fist bump.

And at one point during the G20, Modi came as Biden shook Bin Salman’s hand and placed his hands on theirs as the trio smiled.

The Biden administration will not impose any direct sanctions on bin Salman over the 2018 killing of Khashoggi, despite the conclusion of a highly anticipated intelligence report released Friday that he “approved” the operation, officials said. responsible.

Matt Viser and Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.


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