On emerging concerns
Besides discussing high-stakes Afghanistan and the Quad, Blinken held talks with Jaishankar on human rights in context of domestic and congressional assertions
The trajectory of the bilateral Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership between India and the United States remains on an upward curve. Last week, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken conducted a quick review of the engagement that spans across several sectors.
In terms of outcomes, the formal discussions were more in the nature of assessing policy framework and its direction as the Biden administration continues to readjust America's priorities in the post-Trump era to take forward the commitment of the Democratic Party.
There were no deliverables. During his 24-hour sojourn in New Delhi, Secretary Blinken ticked all the boxes from the to-do list — Afghanistan, COVID-19 management, climate change, Indo-Pacific, Quadrilateral security dialogue. India also didn't shy away from engaging with Washington on human rights and democratic values.
Blinken's maiden visit to India in his new role comes two months after External Affairs Minister Jaishankar went to Washington DC. Blinken became the second high-ranking member of the Biden cabinet to visit India, after Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin in March this year. In between, came a quick call-on by John Kerry —the US President's special envoy on climate change.
Like most other countries in the region, India is tracking developments in the war-torn country where the landscape is changing at a fast clip. Taliban is making a determined push militarily to expand its hold on districts amid an estimate that half of Afghanistan's 400 districts are under its shadow. The end of the discussion articulation reflected convergence, with both sides emphasising that a negotiated settlement is the preferred route to the seat of power in Kabul.
With the Americans on course to end their 'forever war' by September 11, it is anybody's guess whether the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul can hold on to the position even as the Taliban emphasised his leadership was not acceptable. Considering India's experience when the Taliban controlled the levers of power in Afghanistan, developments in the country remain a matter of concern.
There is a debate whether India has opened a dialogue with the Taliban or should it do so at all. The safety of its people in Afghanistan remains high. Over the last two decades, India invested funds for development projects generating goodwill among the people, a factor that is loathed by Pakistan.
Now with the US exiting from Afghanistan, would Washington exert greater influence on Islamabad as it rolled out another Quad diplomatic platform with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan on regional connectivity? The development comes around the time the United States, China and Russia included Pakistan in the extended Troika for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.
Quad and Indo-Pacific
Without a formal structure as of now, both these fora — the Quadrilateral (Quad) Security Dialogue and evolving Indo-Pacific are complementary to each other. Early into his presidency, Biden moved the pieces on Quad with leaders of partner countries — Australia, India and Japan. By announcing a point-person for Indo-Pacific, the President underscored continuity in foreign policy.
The United States is preparing to host the first in-person summit meeting of Quad leaders this autumn, an event that is certain to irritate China. At its last meeting, the Quad leaders decided to produce COVID-19 vaccines with Japan and the US funding production facilities in India, and Australia taking care of the logistics of reaching the consignments across the vast region.
The emphasis of both sides for a free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific and a promise to work together to turn that vision into reality would take a lot of work from all sides including countries in Southeast Asia and Africa, besides those in the Pacific region. The Secretary of State Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd have been travelling to countries in the region to provide a concrete shape to the idea. On the bilateral front, the United States is to host the 2+2 Dialogue of Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs later this year.
On the eve of the visit, the United States sent a categorical message — the intention of Secretary Blinken to have a conversation with India on the issue of human rights amid a perception that there is a 'backslide' in democratic practices here.
India came prepared to engage with Washington and the post-meeting press conference was an indicator that the issue figured with each side stating its position. Aware of the sentiments and that the pushback by New Delhi could point to developments back in the United States, the Secretary of State pointed to challenges the United States is facing, characterising that the path of democracy was a 'work in progress'.
Human rights keep cropping up on the agenda intermittently from Washington. It is not always that such conversations held inside the room are mentioned in the open. Human rights watch groups remain ever so active with the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour presenting period reports to the US Congress including India.
It is important to understand the current political landscape in the United States. The situation there is quite different in the post-Trump era. President Biden is conducting affairs of the state when the Republicans remain aggressive and sections of his Democratic Party are pushing a progressive agenda.
The Biden administration continues to negotiate with the Republicans to rebuild the United States through a trillion-dollar infrastructure spending, creating more jobs at home, dealing with China and reconfiguring the US economy. These tasks are to be balanced with the priorities of the progressive Democrats who advocate better daily wages, improved working conditions for the workforce, racial justice etc.
The progressive on Capitol Hill includes two of the most prominent Indian Americans — Rohit 'Ro' Khanna (California) and Pramila Jayapal (Washington State) — who raise issues like farmers' agitation in India, situation in Jammu and Kashmir etc. The Human rights talk during Secretary Blinken's visit should be seen in the context of domestic and congressional assertions. As the saying goes, all politics is local.
Views expressed are personal