India has plans to host a Quad meeting in January next year, right after the country’s Republic Day celebrations, which may see US President Joe Biden attend as the chief guest. However, the ties between India and the US seem to be in jeopardy after a set of explosive new allegations made by US prosecutors.
United States prosecutors announced on November 29 that a conspiracy to kill a well-known Sikh separatist leader who lived in New York City was orchestrated allegedly by an Indian government official. The prosecutors made the revelations while announcing charges against a man who was reportedly part of the thwarted conspiracy.
According to the authorities, Nikhil Gupta, 52, conspired with an unidentified Indian official to arrange a meeting with an undercover agent he thought was a hitman to attack the victim, a US citizen identified only as an attorney and outspoken opponent of the Indian government in the indictment.
The Indian official allegedly promised the undercover agent US$100,000 in exchange for the planned assassination. The victim of this alleged conspiracy is Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the leader of “Sikhs for Justice,” a group located in New York that has organized referendums in favor of a separate Sikh state known as Khalistan. India has reportedly launched a high-level investigation into the American charges over a nexus between organized crime, gun-running, and terrorists with international ramifications.
The development comes two months after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged that “credible” claims had been made that Indian operatives were responsible for the June suburban Vancouver murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, another prominent Sikh separatist leader. Both Pannun and Nijjar have been firm proponents of Khalistan.
#BREAKING: India has constituted a high-level Enquiry Committee to look into issues shared by United States pertaining to nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists etc. Development after media reports on bid to kill Khalistani terrorist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. pic.twitter.com/RGEsBk8Prf
— Aditya Raj Kaul (@AdityaRajKaul) November 29, 2023
Although the Indian government refuted the Canadian accusations while observing that it was not Indian state policy, the incident caused a major rift between the two countries. New Delhi forced Ottawa to pull out 41 diplomats from India, which also indefinitely stopped issuing visas to Canadians.
With the explosive charges now made by the United States, there is concern that a similar fate could befall the revered India-US strategic ties, which have emerged as an effective antidote to China in the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, any strain in India-US ties would also cause irreparable cracks in the Quad grouping, comprising India, the US, Australia, and Japan.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly asked US President Joe Biden to attend the Republic Day parade on January 26 as the “chief guest” with a Quad leaders’ conference scheduled in New Delhi the next day. However, sources say the visit would be scrapped if Biden’s State of the Union address falls on the same day.
Although there is still no certainty whether the Quad meeting would see the light of day in India, analysts say that it would be a test of Quad of sorts to see whether Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and others decide to travel to India.
However, in the wake of the new allegations hurled by the US, there are speculations that more than Biden’s busy schedule could come in the way of the Quad meeting in New Delhi.
The CEO of the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Center, Michael Green, speculated that the accusations may make the Quad’s case more difficult. “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,” he was quoted as saying by Nikkei Asia recently.
The sentiment in India is also of resentment and anguish. Popular Indian Foreign Policy commentator Brahma Chellaney wrote on Platform X, “The US-planted story in @FT about the alleged Indian targeting of a Sikh radical who has been making terrorist threats from US 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.”
Against that backdrop and in light of an indictment that threatens the Indo-US relationship, a shadow of uncertainty is looming on Quad, which has frequently been called toothless by Beijing and classified as an exclusive clique of countries working towards its containment.
China’s Aversion To Quad
The aim of the Quad has been pretty simple until now. A statement often repeated by the American Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin explains it the best: “We seek a region where no country dominates, and no country is dominated — one where all countries are free from coercion…”
However, China has regularly criticized the grouping, alleging that it aims for Beijing. According to China, Australia is the only member of the Quad that is an actual geographic Indo-Pacific nation that borders the Indian and Pacific oceans. Beijing challenges the US’s assertion that it is an “Indo” nation.
In short, China’s line of argument is that the Quad grouping is an ill-defined coalition of nations that the US has assembled as part of its campaign to encircle China. According to analysts, the grouping has somewhat become a bulwark of resistance against China, despite its claims to the contrary.
Analysts have emphasized that China’s covert intentions in the Indo-Pacific area are evident in its aggressive posture towards Taiwan, frequent displays of force, frequent threatening jet flights over small and relatively weak Southeast Asian countries, and the deployment of warships and carriers in the Indian Ocean and Eastern Coast of Africa.”
There haven’t been any significant public scandals involving the alliance of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia since the Quad’s inaugural leaders’ summit in March 2021.
While Indian analysts maintain that New Delhi’s strategic significance is too great to jeopardize relations with the United States or the Quad, their American counterparts view the Financial Times’ reported plot as “very serious” and potentially harmful. “Friends do not carry out hits on the territory of their friends without the friend’s knowledge” was the recurring theme on social media after the allegations were confirmed.
However, some other analysts have been more modest in their predictions. For instance, Michael Kugelman, the South Asia Institute Director at the Wilson Center wrote on Platform X, “Even w/more info known about the plot, I still think damage to US-India ties will be modest. WH knew of the plot in July, but no cancelation of later high-level meets (Biden/Modi at G20, 2+2). The US didn’t retaliate, just said it shouldn’t happen again. A relationship too big to fail (sic).”
When asked by EurAsian Times whether the recent incident would play a dampener in Indo-US relations, a geopolitical analyst who did not want to be named EurAsian Times: “No, but it gives oxygen to those in the US (government and outside) that India’s democracy is backsliding, not on the same page on liberal values, etc. It shows that India will never be considered a G7 equal…like Japan. But overall, the US’s strategic approach will not change just because of such incidents.
The developments are still nascent, and it is too soon to tell whether the relationship between the two states will be shaken. However, any disenchantment between the two pillars of the Quad would likely have reverberation that will be felt within the Indo-Pacific grouping.