The dirty hands of the Five Eyes

Canada is known for doing skulduggery for the US and its closest allies. India has shot back sharply and still holds some arrows in its quiver.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

The Soviet authorities had a clever way of aggregating the corps diplomatique or CD number plates of vehicles belonging to hostile countries’ diplomatic missions in a cluster. It made it easy for the overworked traffic police to locate their movement in the sprawling Moscow metropolis. We in India follow the alphabetical order.

According to the Russian practice, the Canadian mission in Moscow had a pride of place in the list of enemy countries—number 1. Canada is a country of infinite natural beauty and prosperity with a seductive, laid-back lifestyle. However, the Soviets took a different measure of it as an enemy country that maintained an excessive diplomatic presence in Moscow, out of proportion to the scope and volume of the actual relationship between the two countries, and its embassy as a den of spies who acted as the B team of the US mission. That arrangement probably allowed the Americans to keep their nails clean while the plucky Canadians dived into the sub-soil and came up with the muck, and the western intelligence operations did not morph into a bilateral issue at the Soviet-American level.

The world of diplomacy has hidden chambers, which is why it is difficult to be judgmental about the expulsion of Canadian diplomats from India. There is some clarity, however, insofar as while the government demanded that the Canadian High Commission pare down its mission by two-thirds, it also reportedly handed over a list of diplomatic officials it would accept. Now, that is an important distinction under the circumstances. The thinking is yet to be spelt out but it serves to curb Canada’s intelligence operations on Indian soil. The Five Eyes—the exclusive intelligence-sharing arrangement among the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—have contrived to turn it into the stuff of the Vienna Convention: a mere tit-for-tat. But Canada’s trade with India stood at a measly $6.5 billion pre-Covid; its cultural diplomacy was nothing to write home about; and the political exchanges were few and far between. Prima facie, the staff strength of 62 was excessive for carrying out legitimate diplomatic activities.

Unsurprisingly, the Americans are taking umbrage at the Indian decision. Although, in a comparable situation, they themselves had come down like a tonne of bricks on Russia in downstream of a 2018 incident that took place in Britain—the alleged poisoning of Sergei Skripal, an ex-Russian military intelligence officer who acted as a double agent for the UK’s intelligence services and was living in Britain following a prisoner exchange with Moscow.

The US administration evicted Russian diplomats from their consulates in Seattle (allegedly because of its proximity to a US submarine base and Boeing’s operations there), San Francisco and two diplomatic annexes in New York and Washington and simply took over those prime properties, while also expelling 12 Russian diplomats from their mission to the UN in New York. The State Department’s off-hand explanation was: “The United States takes this action in conjunction with our NATO allies, and partners around the world in response to Russia’s use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom—the latest in its ongoing pattern of destabilising activities around the world.” Period.

In retrospect, the Skripal case appears to have been an orchestrated operation to create an alibi for a coordinated NATO move while the storm clouds were gathering over Ukraine to summarily downsize the Russian diplomatic presence all across the western world. (To date, Britain has not responded to the numerous Russian requests to provide evidence.)

Alas, there is no knowing how many of these 41 diplomats were drawn from the consulates in Chandigarh, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. Consulates are often where key operatives of foreign intelligence services are deployed, given the relaxed working conditions in locations that are twice removed from the vigilant eyes of the resourceful counter-intelligence regime in the national capital. (Skripal was settled in Salisbury, the cathedral town near the pre-historic Stonehenge ruins from where he continued to work for the MI6.)

Washington is taking umbrage at the Indian action for certain compelling reasons. The Biden administration coordinated the preparation of the Five Eyes dossier regarding Indian involvement in the killing of Nijjar, and thereupon assured Ottawa that Washington had its back to turn the screws on Delhi. Presumably, the Indian expulsion inflicted some damage to the Khalistan file of the Five Eyes, which targets countries such as Russia, China or Iran that qualify as enemies or Turkey, India or Vietnam that are difficult partners whose policies vitally affect western interests.

To be sure, when Indians hit back at Ottawa with an unexpected ferocity, Washington stepped in to help out its Five Eyes partner. But the US’s dilemma is that it can’t possibly take the belligerent John Wayne way as it did with Russia. The point is, the “defining partnership” with India forms the core of the US strategy to suppress China from challenging its global supremacy, which must be sequestered from the shenanigans of spy agencies.

That said, the Biden Administration also cannot be unaware that Delhi is bending over backwards to ignore the verbal taunts from Washington on the Nijjar case that are rather perfunctory. The unspoken message from our nationalist government is pretty clear: do not rub our nose in the dust. It is really not too much to expect. Meanwhile, the scheduling of 2+2 dialogue with the US is smart diplomacy—a timely reminder that India is a goose that lays the golden egg.

However, the core issue here is that the Five Eyes operations on Indian soil have assumed a subversive character. It all began with our lackadaisical attitude towards CIA penetration taking advantage of our “unipolar predicament”. A starting point, therefore, might be running a fine comb through the Wikileaks diplomatic cables. Make it a top-down approach.

M K Bhadrakumar

Former diplomat
(Views are personal.)

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