Commentary: On the India-Canada spat, the US is between a rock and a hard place

Daniel DePetris, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

As perverse as it may sound, state-sponsored assassinations overseas are nothing new in the dirty world of international relations.

Israel has conducted targeted killings against terrorists in multiple countries; in 2010, a team of Mossad agents tracked a senior Hamas commander to his hotel room in Dubai and killed him, possibly by suffocation. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a long history of poisoning perceived opponents and traitors. And then there was the case of Saudi intelligence agents luring Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was killed and dismembered.

Now India has joined the club. According to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada’s intelligence services have information suggesting the Indian government was involved in the slaying of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a high-profile Sikh leader in Canada who was shot to death by two masked gunmen in the Vancouver area in June.

As one might expect, the news has plunged India-Canada relations to new lows. The Canadian government expelled a top Indian diplomat from the country. India returned the favor by sending a Canadian diplomat packing and stopping the processing of visas for Canadians. New Delhi strongly denies the allegations.

The United States is a bit player in this drama. While Washington handed over some intelligence to Canada that helped Ottawa firm up its conclusion of Indian state involvement, the Biden administration has tried to keep its head down. The last thing it wants is to choose sides between Canada, one of its oldest allies, and India, a country four successive U.S. presidents have courted over the last two decades. U.S. officials have stuck with the generic “we are concerned by the news” answer whenever reporters issue a query.

While the U.S. hasn’t been totally oblivious about the case, the lack of a stern condemnation speaks volumes. Granted, there is a lot we don’t know about this specific incident. Was Nijjar killed on the orders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi? India’s intelligence services? Did an individual intelligence officer in the Indian bureaucracy take matters into their own hands without their superiors knowing anything about it? The fact that Canada intercepted communications between Indian diplomats, information that was then used to buttress its assessment, suggests Nijjar’s killing wasn’t some lone-wolf operation.

Yet it doesn’t take a genius to contrast Washington’s church-mouse-like silence in this case with other state-sponsored killings. If the Iranians and Russians were implicated in a killing on Canadian soil, you can bet that U.S. officials would be outraged (rightly so) about it and release a preliminary assessment about the matter even as the investigation was still progressing. Needless to say, this hasn’t occurred yet in the Nijjar investigation.

We can chalk some of this up to prudence. But a larger part, no doubt, is because Biden doesn’t want to pick a fight with India at a time when the country is a major pillar of his Indo-Pacific strategy. In essence, geopolitical factors are outweighing the administration’s frequent boasts about defending the so-called rules-based international order.

The U.S. has invested significant diplomatic capital over the years in elevating the U.S.-India relationship.

In 2005, President George W. Bush signed the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative with New Delhi, which allowed U.S. and Indian companies to cooperate with each other on peaceful nuclear energy — a short seven years after Washington sanctioned India and cut off economic assistance in retaliation for the testing a nuclear device.

President Barack Obama picked up where his predecessor left off, advocating for India’s inclusion in the United Nations Security Council and later signing a deal that permitted U.S. companies to build nuclear reactors on Indian soil.

President Donald Trump viewed Modi as one of his closest colleagues; in 2020, the two signed a $3 billion arms deal that would supply New Delhi with U.S. military equipment.


The bilateral relationship, however, has really accelerated under the Biden administration. Modi has visited the White House twice over the last three years, the last time in June, when he was given the red-carpet treatment at an official state dinner.

The U.S. and Indian militaries are training together with increasing frequency. This year, Washington and New Delhi agreed on a defense initiative involving limited U.S. technology transfers to the Indian market and the joint production of jet engines, long-range artillery and infantry vehicles. The U.S. even provided the Indian military with intelligence late last year on Chinese troop positions along the disputed India-China border.

The U.S. considers India a critical check on China’s ambitions in Asia — and it shows. The White House doesn’t want to do anything that could upset the relationship. Despite India purchasing the Russian S-400 missile defense system, the Biden administration granted the country an exemption to a law mandating U.S. sanctions on any country purchasing Russian military equipment. India continues to buy Russian crude oil, with barely a peep coming out of Washington.

Modi’s record on human rights is subpar — he was once banned from entering the U.S. during his previous tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, a state in western India — but India’s importance to U.S. grand strategy in Asia is seen as simply too important to make human rights or religious freedom a big issue.

The Nijjar case throws a wrench into all of this. The U.S. is caught between a rock and a hard place. Condemn India for the killing and jeopardize a strategic partnership the U.S. has sought to build since the turn of the century, or stay quiet and be open to charges of hypocrisy.

The White House thus far is trying to tread a middle ground. But how long can it last?



Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.


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