US Secretary of State Antony Blinken adopted the tone of "humility" while commenting on India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, keeping his focus mainly on China and Afghanistan.
Shared concern to resist the Taliban in Afghanistan, containing China and addressing Washington’s worries about India’s democracy dominated the talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar on Wednesday.
Blinken, on a two-day India visit to India, had a meeting with Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval before he headed for his scheduled meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi later in the day.
The duo addressed a joint press conference soon after their meeting, taking questions mainly on China, Afghanistan and democracy, which Blinken referred to as a “work in progress”.
For regional experts, Blinken's visit carries a symbolic weight since it's the first high profile contact between the US and India ever since Joe Biden came into power.
Speaking to TRT World, India's foreign affairs analyst Gautam Lahiri said that Washington and New Delhi have a "clear convergence on two issues - Afghanistan and China."
"On those two issues they are clearly on the same page but on the question of human rights and trends in democracy in India, there are differences," said Lahiri, who is based in New Delhi.
Ever since the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in 2014, India has received criticism about its declining record on civil rights and liberties, with some global watchdogs describing it as a "flawed democracy".
For foreign policy analysts, Blinken had a tough task ahead to strike a cordial tone with the Indian leadership while deploying the rhetoric of democracy to skillfully tackle the American civil society, which has voiced serious concerns over some of the BJP's controversial policies aimed at targeting activists and 'marginalising' the country's Muslim minority.
The two senior ministers did not mention China, but it was evident that containing Beijing is one of the shared interests of the two countries, like it was over the last decade as both ministers spoke at length about Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), an organization of shared interests between US, Japan, Australia and India in the Indo-Pacific.
Blinken clarified that QUAD is not about military cooperation but about “pulling resources” among “like minded countries” to “work collectively” as the Covid-19 “vaccine initiative” has indicated. Jaishankar was perhaps more direct in stating that in the “globalised world”, India has serious interests in many parts of the world, including the Indo-Pacific.
While India addresses those interests, other countries – like China – may assume “it is directed against them.” The countries – “whatever is their interest, their good and good of the world “– can act on that,” he added.
In his opening remarks, Jaishankar clarified that the QUAD framework is not just about humanitarian cooperation only but “maritime security, HADR (Hughes Air Defence Radar), counter-terrorism, connectivity and infrastructure, cyber and digital concerns” as well.
Earlier in the day, Blinken met a group of predominantly Delhi-based civil society members, which included the Director of Tibet House, a culture-centre to promote Tibet in India instituted by the Dalai Lama in 1965.
It was also reported that Blinken met with the Director of the Bureau of the Delhi Dalai Lama in Delhi, Ngodup Dongchung “for a separate meeting on Wednesday morning.”
Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader espouses the Tibetan cause and is considered a strong opposition to Chinese policies in Tibet.
A prominent member of India’s civil society and geopolitics analyst Brahma Chellaney interpreted it as an “intent to raise” to underscore the issue of Tibet globally.
“Blinken’s meeting with Dalai Lama’s envoy – and Modi’s publicized birthday greetings to the Tibetan leader (a Modi-Dalai Lama meeting seems likely) – signal US and Indian intent to raise the profile of the Tibet issue at a time when Xi’s Tibet visit showcased his aggressive policies,” Brahma Chellaney said on Twitter.
Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Tibet, an autonomous region, on July 20-21, considered a rare event even in China.
The concern for Afghanistan was possibly more serious than the worry about Chinese growth as – to quote Blinken – “Taliban is advancing in the districts”, while the Ministers talk, and “challenging some of the provincial capitals.”
After spending nearly 2.3 trillion US dollars in the last 20 years, costing more than two hundred thousand casualties, the US Secretary of State said that there cannot be “any military solution to the conflict” and a there “has to be a peaceful resolution which requires Taliban and the Afghan government to come to the table” to agree to a peaceful solution.
“(It) has to be Afghanistan led and Afghanistan owned peace process,” Blinken said. However, he also added that the US is not washing its hands off the war-torn country.
“Even if we have withdrawn our forces (and) NATO their forces, we remain very much engaged in Afghanistan. We not only have a strong embassy in the country but important programmes that continue to support development assistance, security assistance.”
The US is engaged in diplomacy “to bring parties together…to bring peaceful resolution of the conflict.”
Commenting on Afghanistan, Blinken said, Delhi and Washington are “not only in alignment but working together, with other countries in the region.”
Jaishankar nodded in agreement while adding, “The US had a robust military presence (and if it is removed) there will be consequences. It is not a question of good or bad but a policy is taken…in diplomacy, you deal with what you have and in our conversation, we have addressed the issue.”
He perhaps indicates that India is not particularly excited about its most formidable ally’s decision to leave a country where the Taliban is “consolidating its forces”, to quote Blinken’s colleague Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Jaishankar also voiced his concerns about Pakistan.
“(While) we have consensus among our neighbours, everybody (Pakistan) does not do what they say they would do.”
Blinken was less nuanced about voicing his administration’s opinion about challenges to Indian democracy.
Acknowledging that every country has its own unpalatable stories, Blinken added that the processes to fine-tune a democracy is always a “work in progress” and as the countries strive to make its democracy work, “the challenges are painful, can even be ugly, but democracy’s objective is to deal with it openly.”
US Secretary’s statement came on a day when a chief minister of India’s northeastern Assam state Himanta Biswa Sarma made strong statements against beef consumption in the bordering states, following a gunfight with the neighbouring state, Mizoram.
Blinken, however, clearly indicated that the strength of both the US and India – and their shared values – is in “our democratic institutions…access to justice and standing up forcefully for our freedoms.”
Human and minority bodies continue to say that India “systematically discriminate(d) against Muslims and stigmatize critics of the government,” in recent years while curtailing press freedom.
“At the heart of our democratic systems, at the core of our partnerships (it is) not only between our governments but also between our private sectors, universities, civil societies – most of all between our people.”
Answering a separate question, Jaishankar said, “freedom is important, we all value that. But do not equate freedom” with “lack of government or poor government.”
“Those are two different things,” the Indian Foreign Minister noted.