Biden caught between allies as Canada accuses India of assassination

by MMC
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A day after promising to “defend democracy,” President Biden brought up India and Saudi Arabia in a series of meetings at the United Nations on Wednesday – not to express concerns about repression by of one or the other, but to salute them for having contributed to the establishment of a new economic corridor. . “I think it’s a big deal,” he said.

Perhaps no country currently reflects the difficult and delicate trade-offs in Mr. Biden’s foreign policy more than India and Saudi Arabia. He has made it a priority to court both nations as part of his efforts to counter Russia and China, even though India has regressed in its democracy and Saudi Arabia never had one to begin with. .

The news of the week illustrated how acute this tension is. The Indian government has been accused of orchestrating the assassination of a political opponent on Canadian soil, leaving Mr. Biden stuck between one of America’s oldest friends and the new friend he is cultivating. And we learned that Mr. Biden’s envoys were negotiate a new defense treaty with Saudi Arabiaputting aside its own history of extraterritorial killings.

Although Mr. Biden did not address either topic, the White House responded to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s accusations against India on Wednesday with studied wisdom. John F. Kirby, a spokesman for Mr. Biden’s National Security Council, said the administration was “deeply concerned” about the allegations and said “the facts should lead investigators where they may and that the perpetrators of this attack must be brought to justice.” justice.”

But he emphasized U.S. ties to India. “I can just tell you that our relationship with India remains vitally important not only to the South Asian region but of course to the Indo-Pacific,” Mr. Kirby told reporters. Then, shortly after the briefing, the council emailed a statement from another spokeswoman, Adrienne Watson, saying: “Targeting dissidents in other countries is absolutely unacceptable and we will continue to take steps to combat against this practice. »

The assassination in Canada has prompted questions about Biden’s intervention in India, at a time when he is increasingly prioritizing strengthening partnerships over fierce advocacy of democracy. He just visited India this month and on his way back stopped in Hanoi to cement a strategic relationship with Vietnam, a one-party communist state, where repression is barely mentioned. His administration has just signed a new security and economic agreement with Bahrain, a tightly controlled monarchy. And last week, approved $235 million in military aid for Egypt which had been frozen for two years due to human rights issues.

“They talk a lot about the importance of democracy,” Sarah Margon, who was Mr. Biden’s initial nominee for deputy secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said Wednesday. “Important initiatives have been developed to support democracy. But ultimately we see that supporting and maintaining democracy does not rise to the same level as other geopolitical concerns.”

Mr. Biden, who called the “battle between democracy and autocracy” the defining struggle of this era, has recently moved away from that framework. Although he used some version of this formulation 11 times last year, he has only done so four times this year and not in the last two months. according to research by Factba.sea service that records presidential statements.

During his annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly On Tuesday, Mr. Biden did not use the phrase democracy versus autocracy, as he did in his speech at the global forum a year ago. And rather than framing the war in Ukraine as a battle for democracy, he spoke about it in terms of sovereignty, territorial integrity and freedom from foreign domination.

His main reference to democracy in his speech on Tuesday came in condemnation of a series of recent coups in Africa. “We will defend democracy – our best tool to address the challenges we face around the world,” he said. “And we strive to show how democracy can have beneficial effects on people’s lives. »

Even some of his own advisers have long considered the black-and-white dichotomy too simplistic and diplomatically burdensome, particularly at a time when Mr. Biden has focused on building alliances to resist aggression from Moscow and Beijing . In fact, he concluded that he needed the help of some real or aspiring autocrats to fight bigger and more dangerous autocrats. If that means establishing friendly relations with India and Saudi Arabia, among others, so be it.

The furor in Canada over shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjara Sikh community leader in British Columbia in June seems like an eerie echo of the Saudi-orchestrated assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and journalist living in the United States, at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. In both cases, a government considered friendly to the United States was accused of carrying out the assassination of a critic on the soil of a NATO ally.

Mr. Trudeau blamed “agents of the Indian government” for the shooting and expelled an Indian diplomat described as the head of New Delhi’s intelligence agency to Canada. India called Mr. Nijjar, who advocated the creation of a Sikh state from Indian territory, a wanted terrorist, but denied Mr. Trudeau’s accusation and expelled a Canadian diplomat in response.

In the past, the United States has joined with its allies to retaliate against adversaries who plot to assassinate opponents sheltering in their countries. President Donald J. Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats in 2018 after Moscow agents used a nerve agent to try to kill Sergei V. Skripal, a dissident former Russian intelligence officer, on British soil (although Mr. Trump later expressed anger at his aides after being incited to do it).

Unlike Saudi Arabia or Russia, India has long been a thriving democracy with diverse and robust viewpoints debated in Parliament and the media. But the space for freedom has narrowed in recent years under Mr. Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was barred from entering the United States because of the massacre of Muslims in the province where he was then chief minister. .

Even though Mr Biden treated Mr Modi to a coveted state dinner at the White House in June, India’s media is under pressure, opposition figures face legal threats and Hindu supremacists enjoy impunity for attacking mosques and harassing religious minorities. At Mr. Modi’s Group of 20 meeting this month, he covered New Delhi with hundreds of billboards and posters depicting his own face, reportedly challenging the cult of personality in any authoritarian state.

THE negotiation of a possible mutual defense treaty with Saudi Arabia resembling U.S. military pacts with Japan and South Korea are part of a broader effort to transform America’s relationship with the kingdom. Mr Biden hopes to reach a deal to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants a stronger commitment from Washington to security as part of any deal.

Prince Mohammed suggested on Wednesday that progress was being made towards normalization. “Every day we get closer,” he told Fox News. The topic was also the focus of a meeting Biden held with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also offered optimistic predictions for “a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” as he put it. called. “This is something within our reach,” the Israeli leader told reporters.

The idea of ​​rapprochement with Riyadh contradicts Mr. Biden’s 2020 election promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered, according to the CIA. At the behest of Prince Mohammed, often referred to as MBS, Mr. Biden shared a friendly handshake during a brief conversation with Prince Mohammed on the sidelines of the recent Group of 20 meeting in New Delhi, dropping the farthest punch the president opted during his visit to Jeddah a year earlier.

As with India, Vietnam and other countries with which Mr. Biden has sought to strengthen relations, the subtext of the move to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia is China and Russia. The Biden administration not only wants to end generations of conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, but also anchor the oil-producing kingdom more firmly in the American orbit.

Some key voices representing democratic reform are absent from the administration’s deliberations. Thirty-two months after taking office, Mr. Biden still does not have a Senate-confirmed deputy secretary of state to oversee democracy promotion since Ms. Margon’s confirmation was blocked by Republicans.

And the president never named a permanent replacement for Shanthi Kalathil, his White House coordinator for democracy and human rights, who resigned in early 2022, leaving a post of equal rank vacant to that of influential advisors on the Middle East and Indo-Pacific who orchestrated outreach in countries like Saudi Arabia and India.

Tom Malinowski, a former Democratic representative from New Jersey, said there was “admirable realism and clarity” in the vision of democracy versus autocracy that Mr. Biden has previously articulated, a vision that seemed undermined by the conclusion of a permanent security agreement with a country where all power is vested in an unaccountable royal family.

“The problem with giving a legally binding defense commitment to Saudi Arabia – which we are not even prepared to do for Ukraine – is not just that it would erode the moral authority of our position,” he said. he declared. “It’s because MBS is so aggressively siding with other authoritarian powers – helping Russia economically while harming American consumers, breaking down any democratic openings in the Arab world, and even trying to corrupt American politics.”

Mr. Biden and his advisers insist he remains committed to democracy and human rights, even in countries he wants to work with. “I told everyone I met about it,” he told reporters in Hanoi.

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