New Delhi: US secretary of state Anthony Blinken is in India on a two-day visit, during which he will meet foreign minister S Jaishankar for discussions, on Wednesday, about extensive agenda featuring the rapidly evolving security situation in Afghanistan, boosting Indo-Pacific engagement and ways to enhance COVID-19 response efforts. This is Mr Blinken’s first visit to the country since joining President Joe Biden’s administration and the third by a high-ranking Biden administration official after it came to power in January.
He will also meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi this evening and will hold talks with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Blinken’s first meeting of the morning will be with NSA Ajit Doval. He will call on the Prime Minister late afternoon before leaving India.
This will be the fourth meeting between the two leaders. Blinken is the third senior US official to visit India this year, having been preceded by the defence secretary Lloyd Austin and special envoy for climate, John Kerry. Biden and Modi have met virtually on three occasions thus far — at the virtual Quad summit, the climate leaders’ meet and the G-7 summit.
Afghanistan and the Quad will take up a lot of the discussions on Wednesday. The fallout of the US withdrawal is having an impact on all countries surrounding Afghanistan, while India believes it is providing Pakistan with another opportunity to continue its support to terror groups targeting India and Afghanistan. This was affirmed by the US side, which said the US and India were “closely coordinating” on Afghanistan.
Ahead of the talks, Mr Blinken reaffirmed the rule of law and fundamental freedoms including freedom of religion as being the bedrock of democracies like India and the US.
“The Indian people and the American people believe in human dignity and equality of opportunity, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms including freedom of religion and belief . . . these are the fundamental tenets of democracies like ours,” he said today, speaking to a group of civil society leaders at a hotel in New Delhi.
In the talks, India will continue to push for ensuring open and consistent supply chains for materials and items required for Covid vaccine production, people familiar with the matter reportedly said.
The two sides are also expected to explore ways to deepen defence collaboration, including exercises, defence transfers and technologies ahead of the next edition of the 2+2 defence and foreign ministerial dialogue to be held in the US later this year. Since the foreign and defence ministers are scheduled to meet in the US this autumn for the 2+2 ministerial, sources in the Indian government said, defence trade and technologies as well as exercises will be part of the discussions.
According to a statement by the US state department, the US has “authorised over $20 billion in defence sales to India.”
A Quad foreign ministers’ meeting may be scheduled soon, while the US is hoping to host an in-person Quad summit in Washington in September-October.
The US side has indicated that they would raise the issue of human rights and violations of civil rights by the government, after reports of hacking and snooping phones of opposition members, activists and journalists using the Israeli Pegasus software became public. The issue has roiled the media as well as Parliament, with opposition parties obstructing functioning of the legislature on the subject. The government has pushed back against potential US activism on this matter. Government sources said this week, “Issues such as human rights and democracy are universal and extend beyond a particular national or cultural perspective. India is proud of its achievements in both domains and is always glad to share experiences. As a long-standing pluralistic society, India is open to engaging those who now recognise the value of diversity.”
The Blinken visit has got top billing by the Indian government with the US as its top international partner. Sources here said, the visit would “be an opportunity to further consolidate bilateral cooperation across a vast agenda. Issues like augmenting trade and investment, and tapping opportunities in healthcare, education, digital domain, innovation and security, will be important elements of the conversation.”
Covid management and helping economies recover will also depend on whether the Quad — of which US and India and members — can manufacture enough vaccines in time for countries in the Indo-Pacific. It is currently a difficult time as most of these countries are in their third wave of the coronavirus, while India has stopped exporting its vaccines to concentrate its production for vaccinating its own population. However, continuing the conversation he started when he visited the US in May, Jaishankar is expected to push the US to keep supply chains open for ingredients for vaccine manufacture. India will be opening up its vaccine production for global supplies in a few months, sources believe, certainly by early 2022.
Officials here said India will push for resumption of international travel, with protective protocols in place, this being key to resuming economic activity “especially easing mobility of students, professionals, business travellers, family reunions, humanitarian cases, etc. The need for resilient supply chains of critical medicines and healthcare equipment is likely to come up.”
Climate change is a priority area for both countries and some attention will be paid to this, sources said.
On a global scale, Blinken and Jaishankar are expected to touch on some of the pressing issues demanding attention —“political and cultural rebalancing are important trends. India supports a truly multipolar, democratic and diverse world order and expects international conversations to reflect this evolution. We believe in equity and fairness, whether in development, climate change or global decision-making.”
New Delhi is Mr Blinken’s first stop in his two-nation tour. He will fly to Kuwait from India.