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US and India’s strengthening bond is weak on trust

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The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

By Una Galani

MUMBAI, Nov 30 (Reuters Breakingviews) -Trust between the United States and India is eroding. New Delhi reacted soberly when the U.S. Department of Justice said on Wednesday that a government employee was involved in a plot to murder an American citizen who is a member of a Sikh separatist group. It speaks to the mutual importance of the duo’s deepening financial and strategic ties. But that strengthening bond now comes with a serious asterisk.

It’s an awkward situation for the world’s first and fifth largest economies. The U.S. designated India as a “major defense partner” in 2016 as part of its wider foreign policy that seeks a counterweight to China in Asia. Bilateral trade has since grown almost 70% to around $190 billion. Companies like Micron are investing, General Electric Aerospace is making aircraft engines for India’s light combat aircraft, and the two nations are planning a joint mission to the international space station next year.

No wonder New Delhi is responding pragmatically. It says it will investigate security concerns aired by the United States. That’s a far cry from the way it lashed out at Canada when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau levelled a similar issue in September which India called “absurd”: India froze talks with Ottawa for a trade deal, suspended visa services, and the two countries expelled some officials. Trying that on the United States would be more consequential: Apple AAPL.O and Tesla TSLA.O are looking to build supply chains in the country, and the U.S. is the largest market for India’s people-heavy IT services companies. What’s more, despite all the starry interest, overall foreign direct investment into the country fell in the year to March.

Global investors may choose to discount the saga regardless. Joe Biden warned Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “potential repercussions” to the bilateral relationship at the G20 summit earlier this year, but he has largely prioritised strategic objectives over human rights concerns with various countries including in Vietnam. The president in 2022 ruled that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had immunity from a lawsuit four years after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate. The United States and India may draw a quick line under the murder-for-hire episode, but it will sow a lasting seed of doubt in the relationship.

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An Indian government official directed an unsuccessful plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist, who is also a U.S. citizen, on U.S. soil, the U.S. Justice Department said on Nov. 29, in announcing charges against a man accused of orchestrating the attempted murder.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said Nikhil Gupta, 52, worked with the Indian government employee, whose responsibilities included security and intelligence, on the plot to assassinate the New York City resident who advocated for a Sikh sovereign state in northern India. Prosecutors did not name the Indian official.

The Indian official is described in the related indictment as a “Senior Field Officer” with responsibilities in “Security Management” and “Intelligence” employed by the Indian government who “directed the plot from India.”

It was a “matter of concern” that an Indian government official was linked to the plot, foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said on Nov. 30, adding, “This is also contrary to government policy.” A day earlier, India had said it would formally investigate the concerns aired by the U.S., and take “necessary follow-up action” on the findings of a panel set up on Nov. 18.

Editing by Neil Unmack and Oliver Taslic


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