Top US diplomat Antony Blinken is billed to discuss Afghanistan turmoil, strengthening Indo-Pacific engagement, as well as New Delhi's recent human rights record, with Indian officials.
Top US diplomat Antony Blinken has arrived in India for talks dominated by turmoil in Afghanistan and common worries about China, while also touching on New Delhi's rights record.
Blinken, in his first India visit as secretary of state, was due to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Wednesday before flying to Kuwait.
US-Indian relations have long been cool but China's growing assertiveness pushed them closer, particularly since deadly clashes last year on the disputed Indo-Chinese Himalayan border.
New Delhi is meanwhile alarmed that a possible Taliban takeover in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of forces will turn the country into a haven for anti-India forces.
The talks in a monsoon-soaked New Delhi will also touch on joint efforts on making Covid-19 vaccines, climate crisis and, according to US officials, India's recent human rights record.
Wheels up for my trip to New Delhi and Kuwait City. I look forward to consultations with our partners to further cooperation in support of our shared interests in the Indo-Pacific and Middle East. pic.twitter.com/KClJ405LGI— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) July 26, 2021
India, a firm backer of the Afghan government which has spent billions on development projects, recently evacuated 50 staff from its Kandahar consulate as the Taliban gains ever more territory.
India believes "US support for Afghan forces over the next few months will be crucial for retaining the gains made under the democratic system in Kabul over the past 20 years," people familiar with developments told Hindustan Times newspaper on condition of anonymity.
They are "expected to raise the implications of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the need for sustained pressure on Pakistan over terror financing and terrorist sanctuaries."
Some Indian commentators have urged New Delhi to start direct talks with Taliban after the group's members held talks in Russia and Iran recently.
Pakistan is seen as key to peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership is headquartered in Pakistan and Islamabad has used its leverage, which it says is now waning, to press the Taliban to talk peace.
Biden admin: “With respect to the human rights & democracy question, yes, you’re right; I will tell you that we will raise it, & we will continue that conversation, because we firmly believe that we have more values in common on those fronts than we don’t.”https://t.co/i8TUizoMLL— Derek J. Grossman (@DerekJGrossman) July 25, 2021
Worsening human rights in India
The rights record of India and threats to democracy by far-wing Hindu groups will also be on the agenda, according to comments last week from Dean Thompson, acting assistant secretary for South and Central Asia.
Under Modi, India has made growing use of anti-terrorism legislation and "sedition" laws to arrest people, in what critics say is aimed at silencing dissent.
The government denies this.
Modi's government has faced allegations it has suppressed dissent, pursued divisive policies to appeal to its Hindu nationalist base and alienated Muslims.
Ahead of Blinken's trip, the State Department said he will discuss India's human rights record as well as a religion-based citizenship law that the Modi government enacted two years ago that nearly 200-million-strong Muslim minority sees as discriminatory.
India is proud of its pluralistic traditions and happy to discuss the issue with Blinken, Foreign Ministry sources told Reuters news agency.
But rights activists say there is a growing climate of intolerance in India and that the United States must lean on the Modi government to uphold diversity and democratic values.
Blinken's visit is also expected to start preparations for the first in-person Quad meeting, "as well as the India-US 2+2 meeting to be held later this year," The Indian Express reported.
Antony Blinken is in New Delhi for the next few days. While democracy and rights issues have dominated many of the headlines in advance of his visit, it's Afghanistan that will likely dominate his discussions in Delhi-along w/Indo-Pacific issues, the Quad, China and the pandemic.— Michael Kugelman (@MichaelKugelman) July 27, 2021
India’s Ministry of External Affairs last week said Blinken's visit “is an opportunity to continue the high-level bilateral dialogue and bolster the India-US global strategic partnership."
Over the last few years, the ties between the two countries have improved, particularly in terms of their shared interests regarding China.
They have steadily ramped up their military relationship and signed a string of defence deals and deepened military cooperation.
In March, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met top Indian officials and Modi.
Both sides agreed to deepen defence cooperation, intelligence sharing and logistics. His visit was followed by climate envoy John Kerry.