J K Tripathi
The U. S Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a two-day visit to India. It was the third visit of any high-ranking official of the Biden Administration to India after Defence secretary Austin Lloyd and John Kerry's Special Envoy on climate change. During his visit, Blinken met members of civil society, had discussions with the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, held delegation-level talks with his Indian counterpart Dr S. Jaishankar and called on Prime Minister. He also met Ngdup Dongcheng, the representative of Dalai Lama, expectedly inviting a sharp reaction from China.
To fully comprehend the importance of this visit, we will have to first understand its timing and the reasons. The visit took place when Asia is simmering with a slew of burning issues. With the announcement of the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, the Djinn of Taliban has come out of the bottle. The precarious security situation in Afghanistan has worsened further as the Taliban scaled up violence once the US announced to advance the departure of its forces from Afghanistan. The advancement of Taliban forces in most parts of Afghanistan- especially the rural areas - and new dictates emanating from the Taliban leadership that severely restrict human rights, especially of women, have left nobody in doubt that the group’s public stance of peace was a farce. Though the Indian and the US foreign ministers had already met thrice during the last six months in the US and on various regional and international fora, Blinken’s visit was a structured one with delegation-level talks. Moreover, as India assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council, it was but natural for the US, its most powerful permanent member, to have discussions on common issues and ways to address them.
With the crisis refusing to whither in the Middle East due to Iran’s determination to go ahead with the nuclear enrichment despite the threat of more sanctions on it, Russia stubbornly refuting sanctions and China in continuous defiance of the international laws and related judgments on the Indo-Pacific region, Biden administration is desperate to have a strong and reliable partner in Asia. Who could fit the bill than India? In Quad, the US found an India willing to go an extra mile to cooperate with the US by openly calling for a rule-based, free, fair, progressive and peaceful order for the Indo-Pacific region. Ideologically too, India being the largest democracy on the Earth, it was essential for the most powerful democracy to retain good relations with the former.
In his meeting with the civil society leaders, the human rights situation in India was expectedly raised albeit in a subdued way as is clear from Blinken’s statement that “a democracy is always a work in progress.” Blinken’s meeting with the representative of the Dalai Lama on the heels of Xi Jinping’s visit to Tibet drew sharp criticism from the Chinese Government; it accused the USA of trying to destabilise Tibet.
During his hour-long meeting with NSA Ajit Doval, Antony Blinken discussed issues related to security and defence. They discussed the alarming situation in Afghanistan, the Indo-Pacific, terrorism and global security scenario. While Blinken shared views of the South China sea, and the Indo -Pacific, NSA apprised him of the Indian perspective of the Afghanistan- Pakistan region and the current situation in Eastern Ladakh. A long-term relationship in training and capacity building was also discussed.
In meeting the two foreign ministers, there were many issues on the table to be discussed at the delegation-level. The Covid, Afghanistan, Middle East, regional security situation, UN reforms and the forthcoming UNSC meetings, defence cooperation, Indo Pacific region, cross-border terrorism and terror- funding, bilateral trade were the main issues were discussed during the meeting.
On Covid, while both sides agreed to enhance the production and supply chain of vaccines by the commitment made by the QUAD Summit on 16th March, the actual bottleneck was on the supply of APIs to India and the issue of indemnity for the US-based manufacturers to supply vaccines to India.
In Afghanistan, both sides had convergent views through India reportedly expressed her concern over not being allowed to directly participate in Afghan peace talks. India was also concerned about the rapid pull out of the US forces from Afghanistan and its talks with the Taliban.
Both delegations also discussed the Indo-pacific situation. The two leaders agreed for a “rule-based free and fair Indo-Pacific order for progress and prosperity”. On Quad, that was termed by Blinken as a grouping of ‘like-minded democracies” and S. Jaishankar clarified to media after the meeting that Quad was not a defence group but it was like BRICS. Though China was not mentioned in these veiled references by the two leaders, nevertheless the target was China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately reacted by saying that the USA should not criticise the Chinese system as democracy can not be restrained in any particular format.
India raised the issue of the American threat of sanctions over India which is to acquire S-400 from Russia soon to which Blinken did not give any definite response. Trade between the two countries was also discussed. The Indian side raised the issue of reinstating India’s GSP status, purchase of more defence hardware from the US, climate change and the forthcoming meetings of 2+2 and Quad Summit.
During his meeting with Blinken, Prime Minister Modi appreciated “the increasing convergence between India and US on a wide range of bilateral issues and the commitment of both strategic partners to convert their convergence into concrete and practical cooperation.”
Overall, the visit was quite successful from the Indian point of view as both sides agreed on major issues. The issue of so-called human rights abuse in India was, it seems, successfully explained to the US side, known for the strong views of the Democrats on HR issues. This also proves that the USA does need India as much as, if not more than, India needs the US in the prevalent geostrategic and diplomatic environment.
(J K Tripathi is a former Diplomat)