US-India ties strained by Biden’s gaffes, criticism, murder plot – but ‘they need each other’

Biden’s comments coincided with the release of the US State Department’s annual human rights report and a review by the bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, both of which emphasised attacks on minority groups, the implementation of discriminatory nationalist policies, and the stifling of dissent in India.

The US has also accused India of carrying out an assassination attempt on Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on its soil, an accusation New Delhi says it is investigating.

“There is a lot of noise out there, but it is important not to see all of these different developments as reflections of the relationship under stress,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Centre’s South Asia Institute.

Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York. US authorities say an Indian government official directed a plot to assassinate Pannun in New York. Photo: AP

He characterised the Washington’s release of the human rights and religious freedom reports as “routine”, but acknowledged that that the allegations of an extrajudicial killing would be primary source of strained ties between Delhi and Washington in the short term.

“I think this is something that would take centre stage in the relationship in the weeks and months ahead,” Kugelman told This Week in Asia, adding that a lot would hinge on the results of India’s investigation.

India’s spy agency was identified in media reports as the instigator of the plot to assassinate the Sikh separatist leader. India’s foreign ministry, however, has dismissed the accusations as “unwarranted and unsubstantiated”.

Delhi expressed its disapproval of the US human rights and religious freedom reports, criticising them as “deeply biased” and having a “poor understanding of India”.

Kugelman said the importance of a strategic US-India partnership would ensure that ties did not spiral out of control for now, noting Washington’s reaction to the case so far had been “fairly neutral”.

“A big reason for that is just how much strategic capital Washington invests in its partnership with India right now. It doesn’t want anything to get in the way of efforts to partner with India to counter China’s rise in South Asia,” he said.

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Online hate stokes fear among Muslims as Indian elections loom

Online hate stokes fear among Muslims as Indian elections loom

Kugelman said another key factor determining the strength of US-India ties was “who will be in the White House”, referring to the coming US presidential election. “I do think that Trump would respond a bit differently than Biden. I am not sure that the Trump administration would be quite as restrained as the Biden administration has been to this point.”

Walter Ladwig, a senior international relations lecturer at King’s College London, said both countries were clear on the challenge posed by China, which continues to unite them.

“In my academic field of international relations, we recognise that talk is cheap and actions are costly. American actions are focused on deepening relations with India irrespective of whatever ‘talk’ may be happening,” Ladwig said.

He emphasised that to understand the strength of US-India ties, it was crucial to recognise the extraordinary efforts taken by the Biden administration to compartmentalise the aftermath of the Pannun assassination plot.

China’s third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, docks in Shanghai. The US is keen to partner with India to counter China’s rise, analysts say. Photo: Xinhua
“The US actively worked to ensure that India’s G20 presidency was a big success while it was simultaneously thwarting and investigating an amateurish operation by elements of the Indian intelligence service against a US citizen on US soil,” Ladwig said.

Washington and Delhi have continued to work to deepen their relationship and maintain close ties at the highest levels, he said.

“When Biden put India in a category of countries that were struggling economically because they were not open to immigrants, he was factually wrong – the Indian economy is growing at an amazing rate,” Ladwig said, adding Biden also tagged long-term US treaty ally Japan as another country he deemed “xenophobic”.

“I think this is more the case of an elected official answering a question off the cuff than any calculated effort to send a message to New Delhi,” Ladwig said.

The White House appeared to walk back Biden’s remarks, stating soon afterwards that the US appreciated the values of “India’s friendship and cooperation”, and clarifying that Biden was talking about US immigration policy.

Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has rejected comments by US President Joe Biden that India is “xenophobic”. Photo: Reuters

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar rejected the US president’s remarks, saying his country had historically been an open society.

Harsh V. Pant, a foreign policy expert at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank, said that despite the challenges, India and the US needed a strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

“You always have times when differences between India and the US in some ways amplify. But despite the issues, the engagement between the two sides in military exercises, defence and economic engagement is at a very high level,” Pant said.

“At a time when India’s relationship with China is at an all-time low, and America’s contestation with China is at all-time high, they need each other. It is mutual.”

Former Indian diplomat Anil Trigunayat said India and the US were comprehensive strategic partners with shared views on global and regional issues.

“However, in many areas on issues India has an entirely different assessment and approaches in keeping with her policies of strategic autonomy to serve her national interests, which Washington does not seem to like,” said Trigunayat, who is also the author of Evolving Security Dynamic in West Asia and India’s Challenges.

“India openly calls out the double standards of various countries including the West. However, I do not think … the India-US relationship will slide downwards as was evident in recent belaboured clarifications after Biden’s ‘xenophobic’ comment.”

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