M Serajul Islam
India’s minister of external affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, right, and US secretary of state Antony Blinken hold a joint news conference at Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan in New Delhi on July 28. — Agence France-Presse/Pool/Jonathan Ernst
US secretary of state Anthony Blinken’s first engagement in New Delhi on his two-day trip to India in July 27–28 was unusual in many ways. In pre-Biden days, such a high-profile visit, and that too at the beginning of the term of a US president, would have been held between the world’s oldest and largest democracies in an environment where issues of human and fundamental rights would have been taken for granted.
These are starkly different times though. The Indians found that when secretary Blinken met members of civil society groups many of whom are openly critical of the Modi government for its violation of democratic, human and fundamental rights of Indians, in particular Indian Muslims. His meeting with these groups was held even before he had begun his official talks with his counterpart Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Blinken’s meeting with these groups highlighted that in the eyes of Washington, India was backsliding on democracy and with it, violating human and fundamental rights. set the tone of the visit. The secretary discussed all expected issues with the Indian foreign minister in their official bilateral talks held in the Hyderabad House. There were discussions on the US Indo-Pacific strategy, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or QUAD, climate change and the newest and most important bilateral agenda between the two countries at the moment, the Covid pandemic. Till the end of the Trump administration, the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States and QUAD had tied the two countries into extremely close partnership and cooperation. The essence of such a partnership and cooperation was the pursuit of their common adversary, namely China.
Paradoxically, it is the United States that has helped China to gain strategically in South and Central Asia by its decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. The manner in which the US troops abandoned the Bagram Air Force Base from where it had conducted the war on terror in Afghanistan for 20 years without the knowledge of the Afghan government and the Indians was, to say the least, not something that the Indians expected or were prepared to deal with although India like all sides involved were aware that the Biden administration had committed itself to withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan by the second week of September.
The Indians, encouraged by the Americans, invested more than $3 billion in Afghanistan in the country’s infrastructure building. They did not expect America to leave Afghanistan in the hands of the very forces against whom it had fought its longest war abroad. And the Taliban would have no reason to entertain India once they claim power or a major share of power in Afghanistan once the US troops withdraw. The Indians, therefore, had good reasons to be unhappy with the Americans. Many analysts even expected that the US secretary would placate its major ally in South and Southeast Asia for leaving it holding the hot potato in Afghanistan not sure of their fate in an Afghanistan where the Taliban would soon dominate.
The Afghanistan issue was, therefore, in the backdrop of the visit of Blinken. Blinken, however, made no attempts to be apologetic for leaving the Indians with their pants down in Afghanistan. The secretary by his meeting with civil rights groups before his official talks put India on the defensive from which the Indian side was unable to recover. Thus the pandemic became a major issue in the official talks followed by the entire gamut of India-US bilateral relations, related to ‘regional concerns, multilateral institutions and global issues’ without any real focus.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s remarks at the media conference about what transpired on key issues such as their stand vis-à-vis China and the Quad and Afghanistan were deliberately vague. Blinken made efforts to please his hosts with pep talks, instead. Thus, in his remarks to the media after the official talks, he stated that there are ‘few relationships in the world that are more vital than the one between the United States and India… We are two world’s leading democracies’ that belied his decision to meet civil rights groups. His remarks on China, the Quad and Afghanistan were as vague as those of his host. The two sides were never so vague in the past on such critical issues that exposed serious fault lines in their once excellent bilateral relationship based on the bedrocks of democracy, human and fundamental rights.
The Indians had other reasons to be disappointed. US withdrawal from Afghanistan would not just leave it seriously disadvantaged strategically in the region, it would pave the way for Pakistan, its nemesis, to enter Afghanistan where it had no footing for the past two decades. And to fuel those worries further, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan without commitment on the Quad’s military potentials would give China the advantage in the region that it never had in the past. Two other developments took place simultaneously related to these geo-strategic matters to add to India’s worries. First, Blinken’s deputy under-secretary Wendy Sherman visited Beijing while her boss was in New Delhi. Second, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yei received in Beijing the co-founder of Taliban Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Nevertheless, it has been interesting to note that the Indians faced these unusual developments in US-India relations as business as usual. When NDTV 24 asked a former foreign secretary about Blinken’s meetings with civil rights groups, she answered nonchalantly that the meetings were held to please the Democratic Party’s constituencies in the United States. President Biden and Kamala Harris had both made it well known to American Indians about the Democratic Party’s contempt for the BJP government’s anti-Muslim National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act during their campaign in the past year. Secretary Blinken’s meeting with the civil rights groups was, therefore, serious and should not be dismissed as measures to please the Democratic Party’s supporters at home.
A section of the Indian media also tried to push the fault lines in the India-US relations that have been exposed by Blinken’s visit under the carpet. In a typical such coverage, one report stated that the fundamentals of the US-India relations are strong and ‘are being cemented by China’s foolish behaviour across the board’ and as long as ‘China is unwilling or unable to change… India-US relations will continue to grow stronger.’ Such an over-optimistic view is in the context of what has been exposed through the visit cannot be a correct assessment.
India-US relations have, nevertheless, many decades old and deep-rooted common interests based upon economics, commerce, investment, foreign and strategic affairs that would continue to keep the two countries in close contact and cooperation, the new fault lines notwithstanding. Such relations, however, would henceforth not have the comfort of a strong US presence in South and West Asia. Instead, US-India relations would henceforth have to deal with the growing Chinese presence in these regions at a time when China is on the cusp of emerging as the world’s number one economic power and a military power not far behind the United States. Furthermore, at such a critical juncture, India now has problems with almost all the seven countries with whom it shares borders while China has strong and mutually beneficial relations with all its 14 such neighbours.
Postscript: In 1994, a member of secretary of state Warren Christopher’s advance team visited Chinese dissidents before his official talks with the Chinese foreign minister. When he met his counterpart for the official talks afterwards, his handshake was frozen in the air as Qian Qichen looked the other way to flag China’s contempt for the meeting with the dissidents. The Indians were unable to do anything to secretary Blinken whose meeting with the civil rights group was equally, not any less, embarrassing to the Indians.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.