Biden’s participation as Republic Day chief guest hangs in the balance
On the surface, the killing of the Canadian- Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar is a matter between Canada and India. But it has become an India-US affair following reports that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s accusations against India were based on intelligence provided by the “Five Eyes” group of White nations in which the US is the key player.
This has put a question mark on the visit of US President Joe Biden to India as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on January 26, 2024.
While US Ambassador Eric Garcetti said that the US was “considering” Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to President Biden extended during the G20 summit, the Spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs Arindam Bagchi said a day later, that decisions on such matters are taken “at the appropriate time” and that he would not “crystal gaze.”
Given the fact that both India and the US are embroiled in the India-Canada spat, it is indeed doubtful if Biden will come, even in the unlikely event of being invited.
To India’s disappointment and discomfiture, the US has accepted Canada’s allegation against India. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in New York: “We have been consulting throughout very closely with our Canadian colleagues – and not just consulting, coordinating with them – on this issue. And, from our perspective, it is critical that the Canadian investigations proceed, and it would be important that India work with the Canadians on this investigation. We want to see accountability, and it’s important that the investigation run its course and lead to that result.”
India’s new-found strategic ally has put it in a fix. “Working with Canada” involves India’s opening its confidential records to the Canadians and submitting itself to cross-examination. Doing so will seriously compromise India’s security and sovereignty and damage Prime Minister Modi’s electoral prospects.
Modi cannot be seen to be bullied by the US on the Khalistan issue involving its sovereignty, security and international standing. He cannot allow Indians to unfavourably compare him with Congress icon Indira Gandhi, who had valiantly defied the US Seventh Fleet during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war.
The theory that the US will eventually intervene to bring about a rapprochement to save its anti-China alliance with India is popular in the media. But the prospects of US mediation are none too good given that Canada and India have good domestic reasons to stick to their guns.
However, there is a ray of hope emerging from the complicated history of India-US relations. The relationship has seen both highs and lows in its 75-year history. Political and geopolitical changes have brought about both improvements and deteriorations in the relationship.
Those sanguine about good Indo-US ties expect propitious changes in the geopolitical environment for them to improve.
Ups and Downs
In 1947, India-US ties were expected to be good because the US had nudged Britain to grant independence to India. But while the US wanted India to side with it in its rivalry with the USSR, India chose non-alignment. The US then formed a military alliance with India’s rival, Pakistan.
But, as the 1950s wore on, US-India relations improved on the economic development front. The Indian Institutes of Technology Kanpur was set up with US help. The relationship acquired a military dimension when India sought US aid in the aftermath of the Chinese aggression in 1962. Significantly, the US did not support Pakistan during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war.
The 1960s also saw US-India economic cooperation in agriculture. The Green Revolution made India self-sufficient in food in a decade.
But come the 1971 Bangladesh war, Indo-US relations went into a tailspin with the US sending its 7th.,Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in support of Pakistan. By then the US had made up with China with the help of Pakistan to form a US-China-Pakistan alliance against both India and the USSR.
The US was very annoyed when India tested an atomic bomb in 1974. In 1978, India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty which called inspection of nuclear facilities. The US promptly ended all nuclear assistance to India.
However, matters improved in 1991 when India launched liberal economic reforms. But in 1998, the US again got annoyed when India conducted a nuclear test disturbing the balance of forces with US ally Pakistan. The US Ambassador to India was recalled and sanctions were imposed.
Nevertheless, in 1999, the US supported India during its war in Kargil against Pakistan. In 2001, President George W. Bush lifted all US nuclear policy-linked sanctions imposed on India.
In 2005, the US and India signed the New Framework for the U.S.-India Defence Relationship which set priorities for defence cooperation in maritime security and counterterrorism. In October, the two countries conducted joint military exercises.
India and the US inked the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative, a framework that lifted a three-decade US moratorium on nuclear energy trade with India. India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and place all its civil resources under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In exchange, the US agreed to work towards full civil nuclear cooperation and got Congressional approval for that in 2008.
The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an inter-governmental body that sets guidelines for nuclear exports, permitted India to engage in nuclear trade for the first time in three decades.
In 2010, the US and India convened the first Strategic Dialogue. India was termed “an indispensable partner.” President Obama announced a US$ 14.9 billion in trade deal and supported India’s bid to get a seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
In 2011, US and India inked a MOU to promote closer cybersecurity cooperation. The US provided up to US$ 1 billion to help India develop low-carbon energy alternatives.
In 2015, U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter and India’s defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, signed documents to renew the ten-year U.S.-India Defence Framework Agreement. In 2016, the US elevated India to the status of a “major defence partner”, which became law in August 2018.
In 2018, at a “Two-plus-Two” dialogue in New Delhi, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis signed an agreement with Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman called the “Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement” (COMCASA) to give India access to advanced communication technology. It also allowed real-time information sharing.
However, in 2019 President Trump ended India’s preferential trade status that allowed products from developing countries to enter the US market duty-free. Trump accused India of not providing “equitable and reasonable access” to its market. India in turn slapped tariffs on 28 US products.
But the two countries made up when India agreed to purchase US$ 3 billion worth of US military equipment. The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) was also signed. BECA allowed the sharing of sensitive geospatial data to boost the accuracy of Indian drones and cruise missiles.
In 2023, US and Indian officials announced the “Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET)”, an agreement that aimed to expand bilateral technology and defence cooperation. The initiative included provisions for weapons, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors. This was followed by the launch of the US-India Strategic Trade Dialogue, which aimed to implement iCET.
However, as part of the deal, U.S. officials sought to reduce India’s purchase of Russian arms. India cooperated because Russia was not in a position to meet India’s needs.
New Gaps Develop
However, notwithstanding the plethora of agreements, there were political impediments to the relationship developing. India had refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and bought Russian oil at a 30 % discount courting US displeasure.
India does not want to take on China militarily, preferring to go for talks. India is also constantly talking of multi-alliances and organizing the Global South against the North. These aims run counter to the US aim which is to build a solid and united anti-Russia and anti-China front under its leadership.
In the India-Canada spat, America’s sympathy will lie with Canada, because Canada is its natural ally. It is White and a G7 and NATO member. India is none of these.
Nevertheless, things may change if there is a propitious turn of events in the geopolitical environment, as indeed they have in the past.
(This article was published in The Citizen)