In May 2022, the Israelis murdered Shireen Abu Akleh – an American citizen and a journalist clearly wearing a vest that marked her as so, a significant distance away from where a firefight was happening. Four years earlier, in October 2018, the Saudis murdered Jamal Khashoggi – who held a US green card and was a columnist for the Washington Post – in Turkey, a NATO ally. Today, one of the most important foreign policy issues being pursued by the US administration is an Israel-Saudi rapprochement.
For those wondering what will happen after Canada’s very public allegation of Indian involvement in the murder of Hardeep Sing Nijjar, this is one possible pathway. Of course, Narendra Modi himself has a very personal experience on how to get away with murder. And the announcement of the trade route connecting India, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel with Europe at the G20 summit – after Canada would have shared intelligence with the US on the murder of Nijjar – is an important indicator of how the US and its allies will deal with things.
Advocates of Henry Kissinger-style foreign policy would have it no other way. In their worldview, what matters is whether a state is an ally or an enemy. But an ally can also be more costly than they are worth, as Kissinger found out. Kissinger, as the Secretary of State under US President Richard Nixon, was “the dominant policymaker on Chile”. This involved destabilising the elected Chilean government under Salvador Allende and encouraging a military coup in 1973. Despite the atrocities that ensued, the US turned a blind eye.
Then, in 1976, Chilean agents assassinated a dissident in Washington DC, the capital of the US, using a car bomb. This was the same year that Nixon resigned while facing impeachment, taking Kissinger with him. Due to the activities of the educated Chilean diaspora highlighting the atrocities under General Augusto Pinochet and Chilean acts of terrorism on US soil, there was a strong pushback by civil society and the US Congress against the US presidency and intelligence services. Jimmy Carter, who was elected in 1979, imposed sanctions against Chile in 1979. And even when Ronald Reagan – often seen as the ultimate US Cold War president – came to power, they stayed, even if Pinochet continued to rule until 1988, almost until the end of the Cold War.
The story of the US and Pinochet is particularly relevant as the US-China rivalry continues to heighten. India is a key player in this game, one that the US-led allies want on their side, so they will hold their noses and smile for the cameras. If Biden can go from calling Mohammad bin Salman – the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and allegedly key architect of Khashoggi’s murder – “Mr Bone Saw” to giving him a fist bump, surely the same applies to India? As it is, the US and its allies have a history of whitewashing Modi’s involvement in such crimes.
But there are important risks for the Biden administration in pursuing this line of action – possibly why the US administration has gone out of its way to say there are no special exemptions for countries to carry out targeted killings on foreign soil. The US will be aware that a closer engagement with leaders with terrible reputations – such as Saudi under Mohammad bin Salman, India under Modi, and Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu – makes a mockery of the idea that the fight against China and its allies is about the ‘defence of democracy’. For China, Russia, and Iran – among others – the Canada-India diplomatic crisis is a windfall.
There is also another issue in the Nijjar killing that makes it different from that of Abu Akleh and Khashoggi – it happened on the soil of a developed country. The US and its allies – Europe, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, will find this hard to swallow because it follows the China-Russia playbook. Both of these countries have regularly poured vitriol on the US and its allies for hosting people that China and Russia identify as “splittists” and “terrorists”. Often these are vulnerable minorities who have faced persecution, such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Chechens. Sikhs who are non-violent proponents of the Khalistan cause – however India defines it – would fit perfectly into this set of people.
When the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, instead of engaging with the investigation into Nijjar’s killing, attempts to reframe the conversation as Canada “as a safe haven for terrorists, for extremists, and for organised crime,” it only echoes the Chinese language on Tibetans. Accepting that India has a right to carry out extra-territorial activity on their soil to act against such groups would also be an opening to China and Russia, as well as any other country that would like to do so.
China has long been accused of using its diaspora and diplomatic corps as cover to pursue action against dissidents abroad. There are even reports of informal Chinese ‘police stations’ across the world. Russia, of course, has been accused of assassinating dissidents globally. If India is allowed to act against “terrorists” abroad in places where the host countries give them refuge, then Russia would feel perfectly in the right to do things like murder dissidents in Germany.
India may well be right, and the Canadian investigation may be fraught with errors. Only a transparent and credible investigation will put such rumours to rest. But right now, it is choosing the language of China and Russia in responding to the Canadian allegations. At some point, the US and its allies will have to ask themselves if that is what they want from a potential ally.
Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.