Blinken’s Message: India Must Step Up to Become a Reliable US Partner
As is usual in events such as the recent visit of the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken to New Delhi, we only get sketchy details of the outcome. We do have official statements and the like, but they almost never tell the whole story.
We know that Blinken came to New Delhi, had meetings with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and then jetted off to Kuwait. But perhaps what happened outside the official meetings brings out the flavour of the brief visit better.
The most revealing is an interview he gave to Zakka Jacob of News18, where he clarified that the US vision of the Quadrilateral grouping (Quad) is that it “is not a military alliance” but “a group of like-minded democracies”, whose principal goals, currently, are to provide COVID-19 vaccines for the region, deal with climate change and assure maritime security to infrastructure projectsThis neatly sidesteps the Chinese critique of the Quad and raises uncomfortable questions for many in New Delhi who believe that it is a quasi-military alliance meant to pressure Beijing, which could ease India’s Ladakh predicament. Jacob pushed further, asking Blinken whether this implied that in a situation where one of the four member countries is attacked, “it doesn’t mean others are to rush in and protect it”. The Secretary said, “That’s correct.”
Meeting Civil Society, Punching Right Buttons
Blinken gave little ease, too, to New Delhi’s Manichean vision of the Afghan situation, which pits Pakistan and the Taliban against everyone else. In response to a question, he said that the “neighbouring countries of Afghanistan have an interest in the region”. Reading between the lines of his answer, it is clear that he sees the possibility of Pakistan, Iran, China and other countries collaborating to resolve the conflict, rather than aggravate it.
As a top US official on his maiden visit to New Delhi, Blinken made sure that he punched all the right buttons. So, he began the day with a meeting with a carefully selected set of “civil society” leaders, including lawyer Menaka Guruswamy, Director of the Tibet House in New Delhi Geshe Dorji Damdul, Inter-Faith Harmony Foundation of India founder Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmad, and representatives of the Ramakrishna Mission as well as Baha’i, Sikh and Christian NGOs.
The theme of the 45-minute roundtable was “Advancing Equitable, Inclusive and Sustainable Growth and Development”. But according to reports, the status of religious freedom, the passage of anti-conversion laws passed by some states, freedom of the press, farm protests, love jihad, minority rights, as well as the Pegasus surveillance issue were all raised during the discussion.
Blinken Raised Unpopular Issues
In his carefully chosen remarks, Blinken said, “We believe that all people deserve to have a voice in their government and be treated with respect, no matter who they are. These are fundamental tenets of democracies like ours, and our purpose is to give real meaning to these words and constantly renew our commitment to these ideals.’’ At the same time, he also praised India’s “free media, independent courts, a vibrant and free and fair electoral system”But Blinken did make it a point to laud civil society organisations, noting that successful democracies include “thriving” civil societies. The remarks were as much for the civil society as for the Modi government, which has been dismissive of such organisations and has harassed many of them on various pretexts.
New Delhi is unlikely to have taken too kindly to this well-publicised meeting, especially since the official spokesman had made it a point to criticise the comments of the US State Department officials, who had said that Blinken would raise issues related to human rights and media freedom during the visit. But India had little choice but to lump it.
Vaccine Claims At The Quad Summit
As for the official talks with Jaishankar, it is clear that two issues were salient — COVID-19 mitigation and the fast-changing situation in Afghanistan. The importance of the COVID-19 pandemic in the discussion was clear from Blinken’s announcement at the joint press briefing after his meeting with Jaishankar that the US would give India $25 million to support vaccination efforts. This would be over the $200 million already extended for strengthening supply chain logistics, dealing with misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, and training more health workers.
This gesture must be read in the context of India’s failure to live up to the expectations expressed in the March 2021 virtual summit of the Quad, which saw New Delhi as the hub of vaccine production to help the region. The fact that the US has had to dole out aid to India would have been a clear corrective to some views in Washington that New Delhi can play the role of a partner and contribute to US policy efforts in the region.
The simple conclusion could well be that the Modi government urgently needs to get its act together in terms of domestic governance and industrial and trade policy in order to become a contributor to the Indo-Pacific strategy, rather than a recipient.
India Remains a Key Player
Separately, the Chinese are unlikely to be happy with Blinken first meeting Geshe Dorji and then Ngodup Dongchung, a representative of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the formal name for the Tibetan government in exile. It may be recalled that in November 2020, the White House had welcomed Lobsang Sangay, the then head of the CTA. It was the first meeting of its kind in six decades. A month later, the US Congress passed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which calls for the establishment of a US consulate in Lhasa and warns Beijing to stay away from the issue of the succession of the Dalai Lama.
None of this should detract from the importance of Blinken’s visit to India at this juncture. Clearly, the US views India as the potential lynchpin of its Asian policy and is willing to invest time and resources in helping it to move forward in that direction. A partnership with the world’s foremost power is an enormous opportunity for India and it must be ensured that the country has capable hands at the helm and a policy framework in place to utilise that opportunity.