Washington/New Delhi, November 28 (Nikkei Asia): Since the Quad held its first leaders' summit in March 2021, the grouping of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia has had no major public hiccups. Until now.
The revelation that U.S. authorities thwarted an alleged conspiracy to assassinate a Sikh separatist on American soil - and that the Indian government could have been involved in the plot - has instantly underscored a fundamental question regarding the grouping: Is it a set of like-minded democracies who share common values, or is it a quartet bound by strategic interests, namely common skepticism toward China?
The answer may be just around the corner. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invited U.S. President Joe Biden as“chief guest” to the Republic Day parade on Jan. 26. Plans are also being made to hold a Quad leaders' summit the following day on Jan. 27 in New Delhi, but the whole itinerary could be shelved if Biden's State of the Union address overlaps, sources said. If that hurdle is cleared, whether Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese decide to fly to India could be a test of the Quad's glue.
While analysts in India claim that New Delhi's strategic importance is too big to undermine relations with the U.S. or among the Quad, U.S. counterparts see the alleged plot, first reported by the Financial Times, as“very serious” and potentially damaging.
“The facts about the assassination plot are still unclear but if the FT story is true, the U.S.-India relationship will certainly get more complicated,” said Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Tellis, who served as the National Security Council (NSC) senior director for strategic planning and Southwest Asia under President George W. Bush, warned,“It would be a mistake for New Delhi to conclude that India's importance to the U.S. strategy for balancing against China gives India the latitude to unilaterally target U.S. citizens.”
The alleged target of the assassination plot was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada. The incident comes two months after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were“credible” allegations linking Indian agents to the June murder of another Sikh separatist leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in a Vancouver suburb.
Both Pannun and Nijjar had advocated creating a separate Sikh homeland in India known as Khalistan.
New Delhi has rejected involvement, saying that activity of this nature is not India's policy.
Michael Green, CEO at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, suggested the allegations could complicate the case for the Quad.“Our 'common values' form one part of the glue for the Quad and it will be harder to make that argument than it was before.”
When Green led Asia policy at the NSC under Bush, he spearheaded an effort to bring together the four countries to provide humanitarian and disaster assistance after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. That loose coordination became the origin of the Quad.
Green said that it will be important for Modi to keep India's foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, in check.“If Modi can't get the RAW under control or doesn't want to, that would damage his personal relationship with Biden. And that would not be good for the Quad.”
Hours after the publication of the FT report last Wednesday, Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson of India's Ministry of External Affairs, said in a statement that during recent discussions on India-U.S. security cooperation,“the U.S. side shared some inputs pertaining to [a] nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others.”
India takes security inputs from the U.S. seriously since this“impinges on our own national security interests as well,” he said.“The inputs are a cause of concern for both countries and they decided to take necessary follow-up action,” he added.
Some Indian analysts have been more direct. Raj Kumar Sharma, a senior research fellow at NatStrat, an independent think tank working on India's national security and foreign policy, said that New Delhi would not accept“promotion of terrorism, separatism and hate crimes by [a] few elements to foment trouble in India,” and that applies to all countries, including the U.S.
A strategic partnership with the U.S. is important for India, but so is the question of a combined and unified approach to terrorism and separatism, Sharma said.“They are not exclusive of each other.”
He added that more consultations will be needed in the coming months but predicted that, by and large, this issue“may not radically change the nature of the India-U.S. relationship, which is mainly based on geopolitical considerations.”
Prerna Gandhi, an associate fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, a security think tank, said that while parallels will be drawn to India's falling out with Canada following Trudeau's open accusation,“India-U.S. ties are more wide-ranging than ever before and contribute substantially to geostrategic priorities for both countries.” She pointed to an inherent resilience that prevents any one matter from derailing the entire bilateral relationship.
Meanwhile, well-known commentator Brahma Chellaney tweeted strong words on Friday, claiming that“the U.S.-planted story in @FT about the alleged Indian targeting of a Sikh radical who has been making terrorist threats from U.S. soil with impunity is yet another example that ought to give pause to those in India who think that the Biden administration can be a reliable partner.”
In a report published in October, Chellaney wrote that the Sikh diaspora living in the five Anglosphere countries of the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand - otherwise known for the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership - are the most active,“thanks to those nations tolerating the operations of extremist Sikh groups.”
The presence of such elements has long been a source of tension between India and Western governments.
Chellaney wrote that America's siding with Canada over the Nijjar killing“shows that its relationship with any of its Five Eyes allies will always take precedence over its ties with India,” reinforcing India's imperative for preserving its strategic autonomy.
But while the U.S. did voice support for Canada, and reportedly shared intelligence with Ottawa, other experts suggest the Five Eyes' reactions were telling in a different way.
One Washington observer said that when Canada announced the assassination plot against Nijjar, they had expected vociferous backing from the Five Eyes partners, but this did not materialize.“This implies a simultaneous acceptance of the possibility that the Indian government was involved, as well as India's strategic importance in the region, and hence the reluctance by any country to antagonize it,” he said.
India is well-aware of its own importance, he added.
Aparna Pande, a research fellow at Washington think thank the Hudson Institute, said India would like to host the 2024 Quad leaders' summit as close to its Republic Day as possible.“I am sure all four countries are discussing it and will depend on the schedules of all four leaders.”
Biden's decision will be based on the importance of India to the U.S. in the context of his administration's national security strategy, she said.“As of now I don't see this incident impacting the relationship. However, we have to wait and watch.”
USSC's Green added that the bilateral relationship is“too important to be badly dented by this just yet,” not just for geopolitical reasons, but because the Indian diaspora in the U.S. and the broader business, academic connections have become stronger.
“The bottom line is that it is very serious, but if the two leaders handle it and make sure it doesn't happen again,” it can be contained, Green said.