US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will arrive in New Delhi on Tuesday for his maiden visit to India. The Union government is expected to lay out the red carpet for him through meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, among others.
Referring to the visit, a US spokesman said Blinken would discuss a wide range of issues, including continuing cooperation on the COVID-19 response, “Indo-Pacific engagement, shared regional security interests, shared democratic values and addressing the climate crisis”.
“Shared regional security interests” may translate to the situation in Afghanistan. The state of affairs is causing considerable concern in New Delhi, which has been a strong supporter of the Afghan government that was established in the wake of the US invasion in 2001. Under the US security umbrella, India has poured in development aid worth $3 billion into the country.
India's Role in Afghanistan
India has strong memories of the Taliban’s perfidy, beginning with the dubious role it played in the hijack of the IC 814 in 1999. In the following years, it experienced a series of deadly attacks that were executed by the Taliban at the instance of Pakistan. These included the attacks in 2008 and 2009 on the Indian embassy in Kabul, on the Hamid Guest House housing Indian doctors in 2010, and against Indian consulates in Herat, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif. Therefore, India is likely to focus on the Pakistan-Taliban relationship in the discussions with Blinken, as well as on the continuing Pakistani support for terror activities against India, especially after the recent incidents involving armed drones.
The US official will also be briefed about the Indian efforts to assist the Afghans. In the coming days, India is likely to step up its support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by providing technical assistance to its air force.
The efforts of the United Kingdom and the European Union to support the “rule of law” and “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, which suggest a growing coalition pushing back against China, have boosted the relevance of the Quad.
Border Issue with China
Dealing with China is another important item on the agenda. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is expected to brief Blinken about his recent talks with their Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting in Dushanbe. Observers have noted the clear dissonance between the positions of the two countries on the border issue, as revealed by the readouts of the two foreign ministries following the Jaishankar-Wang meeting.
After the successful first ‘Quad’ summit in March, which laid down an expansive agenda for the grouping, efforts are on to conduct an in-person event later this year. In the meantime, the efforts of the United Kingdom and the European Union to support the “rule of law” and “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, which suggest a growing coalition pushing back against China, have boosted the relevance of the Quad.
But New Delhi needs to note that the Biden administration’s China strategy is still under review and formulation. In the meantime, US officials have been taking positions that veer from the possibility of redefined engagement to strategic competition and selective cooperation.
Pegasus and 'Shared Democratic Values'
There is one more item on the Blinken agenda, “shared democratic values”, which suggests that the US Secretary of State is likely to take up the fallout of the Pegasus crisis. In a press briefing on Friday, Dean Thompson, Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, said “the whole notion of using this type of technology against civil society, or regime critics, or journalists, or anybody like that through extrajudicial means is always concerning”.
The US approach to human rights issues is more or less formal. Considering that it counts Saudi Arabia as one of its close allies, it is hardly likely that the country will get worked up over the use of illiberal tactics such as Pegasus by the government in New Delhi.
But the Pegasus subject may be taken up only in passing. The US approach to human rights issues is more or less formal. Considering that it counts Saudi Arabia as one of its close allies, it is hardly likely that the country will get worked up over the use of illiberal tactics by the government in New Delhi, which is otherwise friendly to its agenda. New Delhi’s comment on the issue on Sunday displayed a needlessly defensive mindset.
American Goals in Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific
On the Indo-US bilateral front, where trade in goods and services is flourishing, things look good; the same is true for the FDI relationship, even though India’s protectionist stance does not sit well with Washington. Defence trade and ties are flourishing as well. But this does not tell us much, since the India-China trade is also setting records and the US engagement with China in trade and investment continues apace.
But the big issue for Blinken and the US is whether New Delhi is in a position to play a larger role towards the American goals in Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific. India’s failure to deliver on the Quad vaccine programme is an embarrassment, considering its earlier claims of emerging as a global vaccine powerhouse.
The US, which knows that India has a limited capacity in relation to the western Pacific, is keener to have New Delhi take up a greater burden in assisting the Afghan government. India, for its part, is not entirely enthusiastic, since it is one thing to issue declarations on the Indo-Pacific but quite another to be on the ground in war-torn Afghanistan.
Recalling Jaishankar's May visit to the US
Recall that Jaishankar’s visit to Washington in May this year was less than stellar — the Indian Minister did not get to meet the US President. India was then in the throes of a deadly second wave of COVID-19 infections. Jaishankar was in Washington to request assistance on the vaccine front, rather than announce action on an earlier promise to be the hub of the Quad’s vaccine distribution efforts.
As it is, the Indian economy has been limping since 2016, a situation that has been made worse by poor policy decisions of the Narendra Modi government. The COVID-19 pandemic put India under a negative economic growth of 7.3% in 2020, while also pushing tens of millions into poverty and setting back poverty alleviation programmes by a decade.
(The author is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)