The US Secretary of State’s two-day visit to New Delhi underlined the congruence of views between the two countries on a host of bilateral, regional and global issues. An important sidelight of the visit was his meeting with two representatives of the Dalai Lama, which could signal the Modi government’s growing impatience with Beijing’s aggressive ways.
Anthony Blinken’s maiden visit to India as US Secretary of State underlined the strong convergence on a host of issues ranging from the rise of China, the need for closer cooperation in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of the Quad and the Indo-Pacific to the strategic visions of both countries and the centrality of the shared values of democracy and people’s rights.
In a pointed message to Beijing, Blinken also met two representatives of the Dalai Lama. This no-holds-barred signal of US support for Tibet and its exiled leader is bound to irritate China, which invaded and annexed that country in 1950.
Blinken, who met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and members of the Indian civil society during this two-day stay in the Indian capital mainly discussed the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban offensive, the rising belligerence of China against India, the Indo-Pacific and the Quad with his hosts.
On Afghanistan, Blinken and Jaishankar agreed that there can be no military solution to resolving the conflict in that country. “We both agreed strongly that any future government in Afghanistan has to be inclusive and fully representative of the Afghan people... Ultimately it has to be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process,” the visiting US Secretary of State said, adding that India “India has and will continue to make a vital contribution to Afghanistan's stability and development”.
He reiterated that Afghanistan will once again become a pariah state if the Taliban eschews the path of negotiations and, instead, seize power by military force.
Without mentioning China by name, both Jaishankar and Blinken said the Quad was not a military alliance but the coming together of four like-minded democracies to address regional challenges, work together to address some of the most important issues that have an impact on the lives of people and ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The US Secretary of State also told Jaishankar about “President Biden's determination is to continue to strengthen the relationship between India and the US”.
A former diplomat pointed to the phrases “regional challenges” and “ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific” and explained that these were shorthand for the challenge posed by China and its not-so-veiled ambition of achieving the status of the new Asian hegemon.
“Blinken’s statements, though not as forthright about China as the ones by his predecessor in the Trump administration, will assure not only New Delhi but also assuage fears in other Southeast Asian and East Asian capitals – that the US is ready and willing to stand by them against Beijing’s belligerence,” the retired diplomat added.
Addressing a joint press conference with Jaishankar after their meeting, Blinken reiterated India’s importance to the US world view. “There are few relationships in the world that are more vital than the one between the US and India. We are two of the world's leading democracies and diversity fuels our national strength," he said, adding that the people of India and the US are tied together by shared aspirations and values.
The two countries also reiterated their resolve to work together and with other Quad members on combating the Covid-19 pandemic not only in India but elsewhere as well.
The other highlight of Blinken’s visit was his meetings with Ngodup Dongchung of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and Geshe Dorji Damdul, Director of Tibet House, a cultural organisation set up in New Delhi by the Dalai Lama to save and propagate Tibetan culture.
He met Dongchung briefly before going into his meetings with the Indian leaders, while Damdul was part of the civil society delegation that met him at a Delhi hotel.
There was no separate briefing on what they discussed, but diplomatic circles in capital said the very fact that the Indian government allowed two such meetings to take place is a pointer to New Delhi’s frustration over Beijing’s aggression on the border and its seeming reluctance to pull back from the military stand-off in Ladakh.
“It (the fact that India allowed these meetings to take place) indicates that the Indian government’s patience is wearing thin and that it could be willing to shed its traditional reticence on Tibet,” the retired diplomat referred to above said.
Talking about shared values, Blinken said at the press conference that as the world's leading democracies, "we take seriously our responsibilities towards freedom, equality and opportunity to all of our people. Actions by India and the US will shape the 21st century and beyond, and that is why strengthening partnership with India is one of the top foreign policy priorities of the US”.