S Jaishankar knows Washington DC well. He has been a two-time resident of the city (as a young officer in the 1980s and then ambassador from 2013-2015), a visitor for over four decades, and a student of American politics and foreign policy, which plays out often inside the Beltway.
Three months ago, Jaishankar was in the US capital with PM Narendra Modi, and helped deliver among the most spectacular diplomatic successes of the government. Modi and Biden unveiled a vision of the world with India and the US as the closest partners, with their partnership touching every corner of human enterprise, from the “seas to the stars”.
The two countries embarked on a new chapter in technology cooperation where the history of tech denial and mistrust gave way to the creation of trusted ecosystems with concrete initiatives. They broke through the barriers that have inhibited defence ties with the US recognising India’s concerns on tech transfer and co-production with specific agreements. They decided to work together on multilateral development bank reform, Indo-Pacific and G20. And the 58-paragraph joint statement was an illustration of the cooperation across space, climate, economic investments, trade, education, health, people to people links, and strategic convergences across geographies, platforms, and institutions between India and the US.
Since then, US administration officials have told HT that their priority has been keeping up the momentum of ties rather than let inertia set in. On the Indian end too, from the moment the PM departed DC, his office and the ministry of external affairs have consistently followed up on translating intent into outcomes.
Biden has visited India, and US flexibility helped in ensuring that the Indian presidency of G20 delivered the New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration. Biden and Modi also issued a second joint statement in less than three months, outlining progress on the initiative on critical and emerging technology (iCET) and announcing new initiatives. Other bilateral and plurilateral mechanisms have continued to work with swiftness that the bureaucratic machines in India and the US aren’t known for.
But there is no doubt that since Biden’s visit, Canada’s public allegations linking agents of the government of India with the killing of a Canadian citizen on its soil — a man officially designated as terrorist by India — has emerged as a complicating factor in the relationship.
Canada is US’s closest ally. Turning a blind eye of an allegation of an extra judicial execution in a sovereign land is hard for a Democratic administration. In the US, India skeptics and Modi critics have sought to use this as a moment to attack the relationship. In India, speculation has grown that the US may have fed the definitive intelligence leading to Canada’s allegations, even though two news reports on the evidence have clearly said that US provided contextual intelligence and not the signal intercepts that appear to form the basis of Canada’s case, the strength of which isn’t clear yet. There is also rising anger about what is seen as western hypocrisy or insensitivity to Indian security concerns.
After six successful days in New York where India glowed due to the success of G20 and its championing of the global south at the UN, Jaishankar arrived in Washington DC on Wednesday evening with two key tasks — sustaining the momentum in bilateral ties with the US and even deepening it, while compartmentalising and managing Canadian allegation.
The good news is that both sides don’t have to invent new ideas, though new ideas are always good. They have iCET in place which provides a solid foundational framework for ties. In his remarks in New York, Jaishankar unhesitatingly termed technology cooperation as the top priority in the relationship, and while speaking of India’s role as a bridge in another context, he said that tech was one area where India couldn’t be in the middle but had to pick sides. Delhi, with its own innovations, has chosen to be a part of the broader western tech ecosystem, as opposed to the one being shepherded by Beijing. It is also striking that a majority of the pointers in the Biden-Modi joint statement from September in Delhi focus on iCET initiatives — semiconductors, space, telecom networks, defence innovation, defence industrial cooperation, among others. Ensuring that both systems keep their eyes on the iCET ball will be key to sustaining the momentum in ties.
The other priority area Jaishankar identified is political convergence on the global south, for it is in these 130-odd countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America, Caribbean and Pacific Islands that the real geopolitical battle of the future is being fought. Delhi has positioned itself as a voice of the global south, with much greater success than anticipated, and Washington is happy with the development since it would rather see Delhi make inroads than Beijing have a monopoly. At the same time, the US too has stepped up its engagement with all these regions, creating new institutional frameworks for cooperation. And this should make Delhi happy, because enhanced American engagement is the most effective antidote to Beijing’s resource advantage. Focusing on the complementarities — who can do what where with whom better — will help sustain ties.
And of course, there is the direct threat from China. Jaishankar, in his remarks in New York, provided one of the most candid assessments from a top Indian figure on the state of the relationship. Going beyond terming ties abnormal, which the minister has consistently done, he pointed to the high level of military tensions, the lack of tenable Chinese explanations for its actions in 2020 despite being warned this could lead to trouble, the fact that troops remained amassed at the border, the disruption in contacts, the deep impact of Beijing’s actions on public perception of China in India, China’s enhanced presence and activity in the Indian Ocean, the lack of attention paid to Chinese port development in the past but which India is now watching very carefully, and how India has to prepare for greater Chinese maritime presence in the region. All of this is a very clear signal from India to its citizens, to Beijing, to the world, and to Washington DC about its strategic calculations and choices.
The US, too, despite its policy of engagement with China to manage competition, is under no illusion today about the Chinese intent and capabilities and has continued to take aggressive actions across the domain of investment and economy, technology restrictions, and building countervailing coalitions. Break down the Indo-Pacific strategy and look at what Biden has achieved — a historic trilateral pact with South Korea and Japan, additional bases in Philippines, AUKUS (the nuclear submarine deal with Australia), enhanced diplomatic engagement and security and development presence in the Pacific Islands, a strategic partnership with Vietnam, continued engagement with ASEAN, and of course, investing in the India relationship. And therefore, shared concerns about Chinese activities continue to provide the basis to sustain the momentum in ties.
India and the US are friends. But publicly sending a signal of this friendship is important in diplomacy for its impact on friends and adversaries, corporate investors and multilateral institutions, citizens and diaspora, military planners and financial markets, bureaucracies inside and strategic community outside. That is why Modi’s visit and then Biden’s visit helped. And that is why it is now important to ensure that Biden’s proposed visit to India on January 26 happens. With the US ambassador to India Eric Garcetti confirming what was a matter of speculation by saying that Modi has invited Biden, the US must accept the invitation to show that all is well in the relationship.
All of this can happen if policymakers on both sides make a conscious choice to compartmentalise the Canada issue to its proper place in the relationship — and not let it come in the way of the broader dynamic.
This doesn’t mean the issue can be ignored or will be ignored. It is sure to be a key subject of conversation between Jaishankar and his interlocutors, and it is bound to come up in his engagements with thinktanks and perhaps even business leaders privately.
Make no mistake. The US administration isn’t happy at the idea India may have engaged in such an action, though it doesn’t appear too happy at Justin Trudeau going public with the allegations either. Voices on the Hill, which is fortunately distracted because of a political impasse over spending and fear of a looming government shutdown, are growing on the issue. And the American press won’t let the administration forget the issue in a hurry.
But any conversation between the two sides has to come from a place of relative trust, or whatever degree of trust is possible in the ugly and murky world of international politics.
While conspiracy theories are gaining traction in Delhi about US’s role, it may be useful for the Indian side to remember three things. One, Washington clearly had the information about Canada’s allegations before the G20 summit; yet it did not let it define its attitude and accommodative approach and instead helped India achieve a big win. Two, the five top people in the administration’s national security complex — Biden himself, NSA Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony J Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Bill Burns — are all invested in the relationship with India and have put in their personal and political capital to deepen ties; it is not in the interest of any of these top officials to create a crisis with India. And three, the US is completely aware that China is the prime beneficiary of any sign of rift between India and the US and therefore has so invested so much in projecting a narrative of the US-India relationship being the most consequential of the century. It doesn’t want to undo that narrative at all.
What the American side has to realise is that India isn’t Russia or China, it isn’t Israel or Saudi Arabia, and it isn’t the US either. It is a careful power with a pretty solid track record of living by the rules of the international order, but it has a deep sense of insecurity when it comes to secessionist movements and terrorism and violence, given both Partition and what the Indian state has had to confront for 75 years. This doesn’t justify any alleged action it may have taken but it will help keep things in perspective.
Then comes the diplomatic challenge.
One, can the US and India find a modus vivendi which takes into account Canada’s public allegations, America’s public appeal, and India’s stated position? Two, even if they can’t find a common formulation in public, and will express their respective positions, is it possible to have a private understanding not to allow the issue to escalate (which will also require Americans to tell the Canadians to calm down) and find a way to pursue the investigative path officially between governments, in private, over time? And finally, is it possible for US and Canada to take visible and effective actions against suspected terrorists and extremists as a signal, in return for Indian cooperation in the affair?
The mechanics of any resolution on the issue will always be opaque and determined behind closed doors. There are very few people in the world who are probably fully aware of what really happened in Canada, whether or not India was involved in any way, what evidence, if any, Canada today possesses, whether this evidence consists of clinching proof or is circumstantial, what role the US is playing behind the scenes, what’s Justin Trudeau’s endgame, and what are expectations and anxieties involved on all sides.
But even as the issue is discussed and managed, what is most important for both governments is not to let Canada’s allegations interrupt the momentum of the India-US bilateral relationship. It is time for both to remain laser focused on the big strategic challenge of the times , the other C, and continue to build on the work set out by Modi and Biden to lock India and the US into a new relationship that delivers for the global good. While articulating India’s stance in public as effectively as he does, Jaishankar’s real diplomatic challenge is crafting this compact of deepening ties based on convergences on one track and compartmentalising an issue of possible differences on another, much narrower, track.
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.