Blinken pulls India closer amid challenges in China, Afghanistan

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Delhi July 28, 2021. Photo: Twitter @narendramodi

NEW DELHI – The United States will give India $25 million to vaccinate against the coronavirus, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Wednesday as part of the Biden administration’s effort to strengthen ties with a diplomatic partner wedged between two of the United States’ largest geopolitical challenges, Afghanistan and China.

Hailing Washington’s relationship with India as one of the “most consequential” in the world, Blinken described the two countries as largely in lockstep on the need to find a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict – as well as to flesh out the Quad, a nascent grouping of four countries that is seen as a U.S.-led effort to counter China’s influence in Asia.

Speaking to reporters during a two-day stop in New Delhi, Blinken and his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, did not explicitly name their common rival. But China loomed large as they reiterated a commitment to expand the Quad partnership, which also includes Australia and Japan, to cover broader, nonmilitary issues such as infrastructure development, coronavirus vaccine distribution and climate change.

The White House has placed Asia at the forefront of its foreign policy, with India as an increasingly vital player. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited India in March during his first overseas trip under the Biden administration, and this week he was in Southeast Asia, where he warned Beijing that Washington “will not flinch” if its interests are threatened.

In India, which has been locked with China in a year-long, potentially explosive border standoff high in the Himalayas, the Biden administration has found an enthusiastic partner on some of its initiatives aimed at curbing Beijing.

“Both the range and intensity of U.S.-India cooperation are unprecedented,” said C. Raja Mohan, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. “At a time when India’s own relationship with China is one of the worst ever, that’s opened up space for a huge amount of cooperation.”

Yet India has been more lukewarm about the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. The Indian government has worried about the possibility of a full military takeover by the Taliban, which it views as a proxy force controlled by its archnemesis, Pakistan. It has also warned about the prospect of extremists flowing back into Afghanistan, where they could launch attacks against India. The Taliban has made swift gains in recent weeks and controls about half of Afghanistan’s districts.

“It is natural, inevitable, that if the United States, which for the last 20 years had a robust military presence, [withdraws], then there will be consequences,” Jaishankar told reporters Wednesday. “What’s done is done. But we do not think the outcome should be determined by force on the battleground.”

Indian officials say sustained U.S. airstrikes over the next four months – beyond the Aug. 31 deadline for a full withdrawal set by President Joe Biden – could prevent the scenario they fear of the Taliban overrunning the country. But Indian officials have also recently said they have spoken with Taliban representatives, in a departure from India’s traditional wariness about the group and an acknowledgment that it could be a major part in Afghanistan’s governance.

Blinken on Wednesday said New Delhi and Washington agree on the necessity of a political resolution in Afghanistan and offered an assurance that the United States will remain “very much engaged in Afghanistan,” including on the security front.

Earlier Wednesday, Blinken visited with civil society leaders in New Delhi, including a Tibetan leader closely associated with the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader who is denounced by China as a separatist and lives in exile in India.

Before Blinken’s visit, State Department officials said he would bring up human rights under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, which has been criticized for pressuring independent news outlets and nonprofit organizations and introducing measures viewed as discriminatory toward India’s Muslim population.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, said the United States has long treated democracy and rights issues in India “with kid gloves.”

“The visit was mainly about China, Afghanistan, the pandemic, the Quad,” he said. “But for Blinken to kick off his visit with a group of civil society leaders – that’s nothing to sneeze at.”

With the cameras rolling Wednesday, however, Blinken was mild in his criticism.

“We view Indian democracy as a force for good in defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said as Jaishankar smiled beside him. “We also recognize that every democracy, starting with our own, is a work in progress.”

 

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