16th August 2021
Prior to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to India, an air of apprehension appeared due to the U.S.’s focus on addressing democracy in India and the weakening of Indian liberal values. Ahead of the visit, U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, Dean Thompson stated at a press briefing that the question on human rights and democracy would be raised with India. However, hyperbole has always surrounded India-U.S. relations even during the Cold War years, where estrangement seemed to be an overarching feature; but lost in the clamour of unfriendly rhetoric there were also times of occasional cooperation. Blinken’s recent visit to New Delhi echoed nothing short of deeper strategic engagement between the two democracies, despite initial concern. In Washington, there is growing bipartisan consensus on China as the greatest long-term threat and the Biden administration hopes to force U.S. hand against China through increased cooperation with its strategic partners, particularly in the Indo-Pacific arena. In addition to this, addressing climate change, ending America’s wars without raising terror threat are preponderant issues in the current administration’s foreign policy.
Antony Blinken’s visit to India alludes to the importance attached to New Delhi in U.S. foreign policy calculations. Intensified security and defence ties with India as well as managing differences on a range of issues is crucial for the U.S. to realise its foreign policy goals in these aspects. Both the United States and India see the relationship continuing at a high level now more than ever with Beijing looming large and shared concerns over the geopolitical milieu post U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The key agenda for discussions during Blinken’s visit were Covid-19, Afghanistan and Quad among other issues. This relationship has been consequential not only because China presents a significant challenge to both these democracies; but also because of the strategic choices the two countries have made so far over the years owing to the enormity of common challenges presented by China’s rise. In the bargain, this has paved way for greater strategic collaboration between India and the United States.
The United States has made no secret of its desire for India’s assistance in countering China. The two countries have progressively strengthened their military ties and inked a slew of defence agreements. Key officials under the current administration have not hesitated to call China out on its aggressive acts against India, referring to the Galwan Valley clash, which featured aggressive patrolling tactics and proactive military construction projects along the contested territory. The statement underscores Washington’s realisation that it has to integrate India closer, especially in the Indo-Pacific. Blinken stated that “the Indo-Pacific needs to remain a free and open region” which reflects a continuation from the Trump administration. Within the first 100 days of the Biden Presidency, the Quad Summit was held, highlighting the importance that the current Presidency will not take its foot off the pedal and will continue to move forward with a focus on the Indo-Pacific.
Greater momentum of the Quad is expected under the Biden administration and Blinken’s visit is a testament of laying the groundwork for the Quad leaders’ meeting, which is a follow up to the meeting of foreign ministers in February and the virtual Quad leaders’ summit on 12 March earlier in 2021. Both India and the United States have understood that the Quad’s success hinges on two important factors. The first is to create a strong resilient supply chain that can wean away the region’s economic reliance on China and the other is to bolster its stance on the rules-based system by providing concrete political and security support to those countries that have been the target of Chinese dominance. Australia, India, and Japan established the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020, and U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order on supply chain resilience earlier this year in February, foretelling the kind of role the Quad will play under the current administration.
While talks on the Quad are somewhat foreseeable; since the group itself has been visibly gaining traction, conversations on Afghanistan between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Blinken reveal New Delhi’s concerns. With the U.S. finally closing the chapter on one of its longest military interventions, the power vacuum in Afghanistan and the possibility of it descending into a Taliban-led nation has been disconcerting. The Taliban has been making rapid gains recently with its traditional brutality and violence. The possibility of Afghanistan turning into a safe haven for terrorist activity is undoubtedly a pressing issue for New Delhi, but more importantly, India will have to manage its expectations in relation to how and who the U.S. chooses to engage with in Afghanistan’s post-withdrawal strategy. Much is yet to be seen on the level of engagement from another Quad, which includes Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. During the visit, Blinken and Jaishankar emphasised their shared perspective on the need for political resolution in Afghanistan and reiterated that America would remain “very much engaged in Afghanistan.” Moreover, Blinken commented that India was a credible partner in the region and that it would continue to make a significant contribution to Afghanistan’s peace and stability.
Like all friendships; India and the United States have had their ups and downs, but trust, shared values and a commitment to engage with each other have anchored the relationship so far; therefore it is imperative that New Delhi and Washington work towards building a narrative of more ups than downs in the partnership. While India’s democratic backsliding is an issue, Blinken’s gracious remark that “every democracy is a work in progress” reveals the degree of priority Washington accords to the region as well as the key regional players involved. It reflects that the U.S. is willing to listen, and India is no longer reticent in having a conversation about its domestic system with external interlocutors. Instead of this becoming a challenge, it opens up a new space for the India-U.S. partnership. The U.S. views India as a credible player in the Indo-Pacific region and it reflects a new momentum in the bilateral relationship. The fact that India and the United States are the world’s most important democracies cannot be overlooked and it has even contributed to the vitality of what is now being regarded as one of the world’s most consequential bilateral relations in the 21st Century.
*The Author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies
Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author