It was the first visit of the United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to India since the Biden administration assumed office in early 2021. In its first few months in office, it has focussed more on repairing relations with the U.S.’ European allies than other foreign policy issues. The first major overseas visit President Joseph Biden undertook was to Western Europe, in June. At the same time, Washington has continued with most of the hawkish policies of the Trump administration in Asia, notably China.
A much-publicised virtual meeting of the four leaders of the anti-China Quadrilateral (Quad) military grouping was held in March this year. It was the first formal meeting of Quad leaders. The White House Press Secretary told the media that the very fact that President Biden had chosen to hold meetings with the other Quad leaders after just 50 days in the job underlined “the importance we place on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific”. It was meant to be a clear message to China that the Quad military grouping was here to stay.
Biden has since despatched three of his top officials to Delhi to “reaffirm America’s commitments” to strengthen the military alliances it has forged with India in the region in the last two decades. He is the latest senior official from the Biden administration to visit Delhi. Foreign policy analysts have not failed to observe that Blinken chose to visit India before scheduling visits to the U.S.’ traditional military allies in Southeast Asia such as Singapore and the Philippines. The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including the U.S.’ military allies, have refused to be a party to the anti-China grouping in the region headed by the U.S. India has now become a lynchpin in the U.S.’ military strategy for the Indo-Pacific region.
The U.S. Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, was in Delhi in the third week of March. Austin said that the U.S. aimed to enhance the defence relationship with India. through regional security cooperation, military-to-military interaction and defence trade. He had also strongly advised the Indian government against going in for military acquisitions from Russia.
The next important visitor from Washington was John Kerry, Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Kerry that India was committed to meeting its climate change pledges. Kerry, in turn, assured him that Washington would ensure affordable access to the latest green technologies and financing.
Talks on Afghanistan
Blinken came on a short two-day visit to India in end July when storm clouds were gathering over Afghanistan. It was therefore no surprise that the fast-evolving situation in Afghanistan was on top of the agenda during the talks in Delhi. The Indian government was not kept in the loop about the important details of the U.S.’ decision to militarily withdraw from Afghanistan. Even in the international talks that have taken place in the last two years involving the Taliban, India played only a minor role.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has once again occupied centre stage as it not only has the ear of the Taliban but has also gained the confidence of the U.S., Russia and China as an interlocutor. Both Russia and China now have a working relationship with the Taliban. Top Taliban delegations have visited both these countries in recent months. The U.S. added to India’s discomfiture on the Afghanistan issue by announcing the creation of another Quad, this time a diplomatic one, in the region, comprising the U.S., Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan, to deal with the aftermath of the troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and in order to retain a foothold in the region.
Moscow, too, does not seem keen to involve India meaningfully in the ongoing efforts to avoid a civil war-like situation emerging in Afghanistan. New Delhi, after feeble efforts to establish contacts with the victorious Taliban, continues to give its full diplomatic support to the government of President Ashraf Ghani even as the Taliban is knocking at the gates of Kabul.
During talks with India’s Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar, Blinken reiterated that only a peaceful transition of power in Kabul would be acceptable to the international community, despite the facts on the ground changing fast. Blinken told the media in India that an “Afghanistan that does not respect the rights of its people, an Afghanistan that commits atrocities against its own people would become a pariah state”.
In a statement issued after the meeting between Jaishankar and Blinken, the two sides insisted “on a peaceful resolution of the differences between the government in Kabul and the Taliban”. India’s worries about the comeback of the Taliban were articulated by Jaishankar. “It is natural and inevitable that the U.S., which has a robust military presence in Afghanistan for the last two decades, when it withdraws, there will be consequences,” he said. New Delhi fears that once the Taliban takes over, the strategic calculus in the region will change in favour of its regional rivals, Pakistan and China.
The Kashmir angle
The last time the Taliban had been in power, militancy in the Kashmir valley had escalated to its highest point. Given the track record of the Taliban and its close links with the Pakistan’s security establishment, it is unlikely that the group will change its stance on the Kashmir issue. It is no surprise that the accelerating events in Afghanistan are making the authorities in India nervous. Over the last two decades, India has invested a lot in Afghanistan, building key infrastructural projects and training Afghan military officers. The governments of Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which share long borders with Afghanistan, are just as worried. Iran and Afghanistan had been on the verge of going to war when the Taliban was in power.
After the Blinken visit, both sides have claimed that there is now more convergence on the issue. Blinken said that both sides were committed “to the proposition that there is no military solution to the conflict” and that the two countries are working together and working with other countries in the region to bring about a peaceful transition in Afghanistan. He emphasised that India would continue to play an important role in Afghanistan. “As a leader and a critical partner in the region, India will continue to make vital contributions to Afghanistan’s stability, order and development,” he said.
Human rights issues
The Modi government was also upset with the Biden administration’s focus on issues related to human rights in India. U.S. lawmakers have been putting pressure on Biden to raise the issue at a high level with the Indian government. The Indian government’s attacks on the media and the minorities have been making headlines in the U.S. media. The Biden administration is no doubt asking more questions about civil liberties and related issues than the previous Trump administration. At the same time, it does not want to rub New Delhi the wrong way, given the importance Washington gives to the Quad military alliance against China. Anyway, on issues relating to human rights, Washington has always applied a different yardstick to its allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel. India, too, is on its way of becoming a trusted ally of the U.S.
Blinken was careful not to ruffle feathers by making a public statement on human rights issues during his visit to Delhi. However, during official talks, he suggested that according to media reports, the Indian government was “backsliding” on democratic values. U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had also raised concerns about the human rights situation during his visit to India. He was specifically asked by U.S. Congressmen, Republicans as well as Democrats to do so.
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Blinken had a well-publicised meeting with the civil society representatives in Delhi. He told them that India and the U.S. were “connected by shared values” such as the rule of law and religious freedoms. He said: “We believe that all people deserve to have a voice in their government and be treated with respect, no matter who they are.” According to the U.S. State Department spokesman, Blinken discussed issues relating to the pandemic, security cooperation and emphasised on “shared values and democratic principles” in his meeting with Modi.
A few days after Blinken’s visit, President Biden revamped the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (UCIRF) by appointing four new commissioners and a new head. The UCIRF will now be headed by India-born Rashad Hussain, who has been designated Ambassador-at-large to lead the State Department’s international religious freedom office.
One of the new commissioners is Pakistan-born Khizr Khan, who is well-known for opposing the racist and sectarian policies of President Trump. Khan lost his son, who was serving in the U.S. army, during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The White House said that the decision to appoint Khan “underscores the President’s commitment to build an administration that looks like America and reflects people of all faiths”.
Jaishankar defended his government’s record on civil liberties and human rights. At a joint press conference addressed by Blinken and Jaishankar, he hinted that both the democracies had flaws. He said that “the quest for a perfect union applies as much to the Indian democracy as it does to the American one”.
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Jaishankar went on to assert that “freedoms are important, we value them, but never equate freedom with non-governance or lack of governance or poor governance”. The Modi government knows that it can stand up to Washington on issues relating to human rights, knowing very well that the Biden administration’s priority is to keep India in the anti-China military alliance.
Blinken had nothing much to say about the global pandemic and its impact on the region. The Quad meet in March decided that India would spearhead the West’s vaccine diplomacy to counter China’s successful vaccine diplomacy in the region. But the Indian government has failed abysmally to provide vaccines for its own people despite claiming it is the vaccine factory of the world. The Biden administration, after initial statements supporting calls for the waiver of patents on vaccines being produced to combat the pandemic, has now backtracked under pressure from the powerful pharmaceutical lobby. The lifting of the patent restrictions would have facilitated production of vaccines in the global South.
Blinken announced that the U.S. would supply 25 million vaccine doses to India but there were no assurances that the Biden administration would meet the Indian government’s request for urgent supply of raw materials for vaccine production in India. Before the Blinken visit, the U.S. State Department had announced that the Quad countries were working towards the goal of rolling out a billion doses of the vaccine by next year. Biden also announced a grant of $25 million fund to help the Indian government in its fight against the pandemic.
Though there was little mention of China during the Bilken visit, Beijing took umbrage after the Indian government facilitated a meeting between the visiting U.S. dignitary and a top representative of the Dalai Lama, Ngodup Dongchung. The Indian government had slightly distanced itself from the Dalai Lama after the Wuhan summit between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. But after last year’s border skirmishes and the continuing standoff along the Line of Actual Control, the Modi government is once again allowing the so-called Tibetan government in exile, based in Dharamsala, to function more openly.
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Modi had wished the Dalai Lama on his birthday this year after a gap of more than six years. Blinken’s meeting with Dongchuk was the highest level meeting a U.S. official has had with the Tibetan government in exile since the meeting between President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama in the White House in 2016. Blinken also met with Geshe Dorji Damdul, the Director of Tibet House in Delhi.
China reacted angrily, saying that Biden’s meeting with the Dalai Lama’s representatives was a violation of the U.S. commitment to recognise Tibet as a part of China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “We urge the U.S. to honour its commitment to stop meddling in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Tibetan affairs, and offer no support to Tibetan independence forces to engage in anti-China separatist activities.”