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Canada’s India allegation puts U.S. in ‘difficult’ spot as it seeks deeper ties

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Canada’s allegation that there is evidence agents of India’s government may have behind the killing of a Sikh leader on Canadian soil have put the U.S. in what experts say is a “difficult” bind as it seeks deeper economic ties with the South Asian superpower.

The Biden administration has said little publicly about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s astonishing announcement Monday that “credible intelligence” suggests a link between the Indian government and the June murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and supporter of the Khalistan movement that is pushing for the creation of a separate Sikh state.

That’s because the U.S. doesn’t want to strain its own relations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as it pursues its Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China’s rise and forge new trade and diplomatic relations in the region — a strategy that is heavily reliant on India.

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“It’s put the U.S. in a very difficult place,” said Jonathan Miller, a senior fellow and director of foreign affairs at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.

“I don’t envision the Americans stepping out too drastically on this issue … until or unless there is some very, very definitive proof.”


Click to play video: 'India rejects ‘absurd’ allegations it was behind murder of B.C. Sikh leader'


India rejects ‘absurd’ allegations it was behind murder of B.C. Sikh leader


Trudeau’s announcement in the House of Commons sparked fierce condemnation from Canadian politicians and tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats from Canada and India, which fiercely denied the allegation as “absurd and motivated.”

But the White House was careful to note the investigation into Nijjar’s murder has yet to be resolved in comments that urged India to cooperate — all without condemning the alleged link.

“We are deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.

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“We remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners. It is critical that Canada’s investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice,” the statement said.

Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, NSC strategic communications coordinator John Kirby would not say if the U.S. has corroborated the intelligence and deferred to Canada to take the lead. He also would not entertain questions about what repercussions Modi and his government could face if the allegations are proven true.

“Let’s not get ahead of where we are,” he said.


Click to play video: '‘Credible’ intel links India to Canadian Sikh leader’s murder: Trudeau'


‘Credible’ intel links India to Canadian Sikh leader’s murder: Trudeau


Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly told reporters in Ottawa on Monday that Trudeau raised the allegations with U.S. President Joe Biden at the G20 summit in New Delhi earlier this month. Joly said she intended to discuss the issue further with allies at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week.

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The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that Canada’s Five Eyes allies, including the U.S., rebuffed private entreaties to publicly condemn the murder and India’s alleged involvement.

A senior Canadian government official, speaking to Global News on background, called the report “absolutely false.”

“We will continue to keep our allies, including at the official level, apprised of relevant information as Canadian security agencies work fast to get to the bottom of the matter,” Emily Williams, a spokesperson for Joly’s office, said in a separate statement.

A senior Biden administration official also told Global News they were “not aware of a Canadian request to publicly condemn the murder that we refused and would strongly push back on that.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

“This is going to be a very delicate tightrope walk for the U.S.,” said Vina Nadjibulla, a senior fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and an adjunct professor of foreign policy at the University of British Columbia.


Click to play video: 'Canada expels top Indian diplomat after Sikh leader’s death tied to India’s government: Joly'


Canada expels top Indian diplomat after Sikh leader’s death tied to India’s government: Joly


She juxtaposed the Western response to the allegations against India to the widespread and direct condemnation of China when Nadjibulla’s husband Michael Kovrig, along with Michael Spavor, were detained for over 1,000 days in retaliation for the Canadian arrest of Meng Wanzhou.

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“It was a very different type of situation given the China-U.S. competition,” she said. “In that moment, all of our allies were behind us and very much on our side.

“In this case … these are unprecedented allegations from one leader of a democracy to another. And given India’s significance as a critical strategic partner to the U.S., this may play out very differently.”

The past few months have seen a flurry of diplomatic outreach and economic expansion between the U.S. and India that has also forced the Biden administration to tiptoe around accusations against Modi’s government of human rights abuses.

This month’s G20 summit saw Biden and his allies unveil plans to build a rail and shipping corridor linking India with the Middle East and Europe, an ambitious project aimed at fostering economic growth and political cooperation.

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During a state visit by Modi to Washington, D.C., in June, the two leaders jointly rolled out a slew of new business deals including partnerships in aerospace and semiconductor production. India also joined the Artemis Accords, a blueprint for space exploration cooperation among nations participating in NASA’s lunar exploration plans.

At the time, Biden called the U.S.-India partnership “among the most consequential in the world” — one that is “stronger, closer, and more dynamic than any time in history.”


Click to play video: 'What did Modi’s visit to Washington accomplish for US-India ties?'


What did Modi’s visit to Washington accomplish for US-India ties?


But the trip also saw Modi face reporters’ questions on criticisms his government has overseen an erosion of religious, political and press freedoms in India, including a rise in violence against Muslims by Hindu nationalists. Legislation that aims to fast-track citizenship for migrants also excludes Muslims.

Biden emphasized democratic freedoms during the two leaders’ meetings in Washington, yet a small group of Democratic lawmakers boycotted Modi’s address to Congress over his human rights record.

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Biden and Modi have also had differences over Russia’s war in Ukraine. India has abstained from voting on UN resolutions condemning Russia and refused to join the global coalition opposing the war. Since the start of the war, the Modi government has also dramatically increased its purchase of Russian oil.

Despite those concerns, India remains a key part of the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy due to its economic power and ability to provide alternative trade gateways that can weaken China’s dominance in the region.

India is also part of the Quad, a strategic security dialogue with the U.S., Australia and Japan that also seeks to counter China.

Miller says the West is hoping India remains a partner in its opposition against Beijing, and fears pushing Modi’s government too much on human rights and foreign interference because of that.

“India wants to push back on China for its own purposes where it wants to,” he said.

“Not having India as a partner, even if it’s not an adversary, would be incredibly damaging” to the West’s ambitions in the wider Indo-Pacific, he added.

— with files from Reggie Cecchini 



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