New Delhi: Even as both countries reaffirmed their solidarity with Israel against terrorism, the United States urged India to cooperate with Canada on its investigation of the killing of a Sikh Canadian citizen, while New Delhi asserted that it had “core security concerns” about separatist activities during bilateral talks held on Friday (November 10).
The fifth edition of the ‘2+2’ foreign and defence ministerial meeting was held on Friday in the Indian capital, with US secretary of state Anthony Blinken and secretary of defence Lloyd Austin heading the US delegation, while India was represented by Union external affairs minister S. Jaishankar and Union defence minister Rajnath Singh.
For the first time, there was no joint press conference addressed by all four ministers after the end of the ‘2+2’ discussions. India’s foreign and defence secretaries addressed the media, while Austin and Blinken had separate briefings with their travelling media.
With discussions ranging from China to South Asia and West Asia to Ukraine, the two sides had a lot to talk about, besides the usual bilateral agenda of strengthening cooperation in defence and a host of other sectors.
Concluded a substantive India-US 2+2 Ministerial Meeting.
Followed up on PM @narendramodi’s State visit to the US this June.
Our agenda covered advancing our strategic partnership, including elevating our defense ties, moving forward in space & tech, future logistics… pic.twitter.com/f7ezKlM0tj
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) November 10, 2023
However, it was particularly noteworthy that Blinken chose to directly address the Canadian issue during a separate bilateral meeting with his Indian counterpart Jaishankar preceding the talks on Friday morning.
India’s relations with Canada had nosedived after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly accused unnamed Indian government agents of being implicated in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen described by India as a Khalistani terrorist.
From the beginning, the United States has consistently urged India to participate in the Canadian investigation, a sentiment reiterated by Blinken during his visit to New Delhi on Friday.
“As a friend of both, we think it’s very important that India work with Canada on its investigation, and that they find a way to resolve this difference in a cooperative way,” he told reporters.
Following a reciprocal expulsion of one diplomat each by Canada and India, an additional 41 Canadian diplomats departed when New Delhi insisted on downsizing Ottawa’s diplomatic presence in the Indian capital.
India had also stopped visa services for Canadian nationals, a restriction that was partially lifted after approximately three weeks.
India’s foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra reiterated that New Delhi remained concerned about security implications from the threats made by Khalistani separatists against Indian diplomats.
“We have made our concerns very, very clear,” he told reporters on Friday. “We have core security concerns and I am sure you are all aware of a recent video that has surfaced from one such individual.”
Canadian officials reportedly intercepted communications among Indian diplomats suggesting India’s involvement in Nijjar’s death, but New Delhi has reiterated that it has not received any evidence from Ottawa about the killing.
US ambassador to Canada David Cohen had said that “shared information” from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance had informed Trudeau’s decision to go public with the allegations.
Incidentally, the joint statement released following the conclusion of the discussions emphasised the two nations’ shared commitment to “advance democracy, human rights, and pluralism”.
Notably, the phrase ‘human rights’ was included in this statement, distinguishing it from the joint statement issued after the ‘2+2’ talks in 2022, which only mentioned democracy and pluralism.
Barring the differences over Canada, India and the US were upbeat that they had reached strategic alignment on several crucial areas.
Using blunt language, Singh asserted that both India and the United States were in agreement when it came to addressing the challenges posed by China.
“We increasingly find ourselves in agreement on strategic issues, including countering China’s aggression, promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, and addressing regional security challenges,” said Singh at the start of his bilateral talks with Austin.
India is currently in the midst of a military stand-off with China on the Line of Actual Control that began in April-May 2020. While several of the friction points have witnessed de-escalation, the two strategic areas of Depsang and Demchok continue to show no sign of resolution.
Incidentally, the United States has been actively pursuing a meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco this month.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to skip the summit despite a standing invitation extended to him during Biden’s visit to India for the G-20 summit.
Speaking with the media, US defence secretary Austin said that the talks did cover the “threat posed by China”, but noted that entire dialogue was not spent just discussing the Asian giant.
Along with China, the joint statement on the ‘2+2’ talks demonstrated their similar position on the Israel-Hamas war.
“Noting horrific terrorist attacks against Israel, the ministers reiterated that India and the United States stand with Israel against terrorism and called for adherence to international humanitarian law, including with regard to the protection of civilians,” said the bilateral document.
Calling for the immediate release of all hostages, the joint statement further stated that the two sides were committed to “continue coordinating with partners in the region on humanitarian assistance to meet the urgent needs of Palestinian civilians in Gaza”.
India and the US reiterated their support for “humanitarian pauses”. This is a day after Israel agreed to allow the halting of fighting for four hours every day.
“They expressed support for humanitarian pauses and committed to continue close diplomatic coordination, including with key partners in the region, to prevent the conflict from spreading, preserve stability in the Middle East, and work toward a political solution and durable peace,” said the joint statement.
Immediately after the October 7 attack by Hamas, Modi had expressed “solidarity” with Israel.
However, a week later, India had to balance Modi’s statement by reaffirming support for the “Palestinian cause” and the two-state solution.
Despite this, India abstained from a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling for humanitarian pauses, arguing that it should also have condemned the October 7 attack that resulted in the death of 1,400 people.
Blinken said that Israel’s action to allow for ‘humanitarian pauses’ was positive but not enough.
“Much more needs to be done to protect civilians and to make sure that humanitarian assistance reaches them,” he told reporters in New Delhi on Friday, at the end of his nine-day sojourn through the Middle East and Asia.
He continued: “Far too many Palestinians have been killed, far too many have suffered these past weeks, and we want to do everything possible to prevent harm to them and to maximise the assistance that gets to them.”
According to Gaza’s health ministry, the death toll among Palestinians in Israeli counter-strikes has exceeded 11,000 people.
Absence of Pakistan in the joint statement
Although both nations expressed solidarity with Israel against terrorism, this year’s joint statement notably omitted any mention of Pakistan or “cross-border” terrorism, a departure from previous editions.
At the inaugural ‘2+2’ joint statement in 2018, the four ministers had “called on Pakistan to ensure that the territory under its control is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries”.
It had also denounced the use of “terrorist proxies in the region”.
But there is no mention of Pakistan in the 2023 joint statement. There is not even an oblique reference to the South Asian country through the euphemistic term ‘cross-border’ terror.
In 2022, the joint statement had talked about exchanging information about the “cross-border movement of terrorists” in the same sentence about the need for implementing sanctions against terror groups, countering violent radicalism and use of the Internet for terrorist purposes.
This year, the negotiated joint statement stated that the ministers “condemned terrorism and violent extremism, and the use of terrorist proxies and logistical, financial or military support to terrorist organisations, which could be used to launch or plan terrorist attacks, including international attacks”.
It reiterated the need for justice for the 26/11 and Pathankot terror attacks, as well as the need for action against UN proscribed terror groups “such as Al-Qa’ida, ISIS/Daesh, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammed”, but without any explicit mention of Pakistan, for the first time since the start of the ministerial-level dialogue.
Bangladesh also featured in the India-US ministerial talks, highlighting the differing approaches between India and the US in the lead-up to the general elections there next year.
The Bangladeshi opposition has threatened to boycott the elections if a caretaker government is not established. The US has started to impose visa restrictions on members of the ruling establishment for allegedly being complicit in undermining free and fair elections.
Foreign secretary Kwatra said that India shared its perspective on Bangladesh clearly. “It is not our space to comment on the policy of a third country … the election in Bangladesh is their internal matter and it is for the people of Bangladesh to decide their future,” he stated.
Disagreeing with the American approach, the senior Indian diplomat added that as a “close friend”, India “respect[s] the democratic process in Bangladesh and will continue to support the country’s vision of a stable, peaceful and progressive nation”.
A day earlier, the spokesperson for the Indian external affairs ministry had declined to censure the Bangladesh government for the arrest of senior opposition leaders ahead of the polls.
Earlier this week, an Awami League leader had threatened to “beat up” US ambassador to Dhaka Peter Haas, which was criticised by the State department.
On the defence front, Austin reiterated the importance of the co-production of an armoured vehicle.
The two countries also agreed to set up “new liaison positions to facilitate seamless communication and cooperation between their armed forces”.
The visitors called on Modi together on Friday evening, before departing from New Delhi.