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Does Biden trust India?

By Ambassador T P SREENIVASAN
July 29, 2021 16:45 IST
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Tony Blinken's visit indicated that the Biden administration is still somewhat tentative about the specifics of its relations with India, observes Ambassador T P Sreenivasan, who has served multiple stints at India's embassy in Washington, DC.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken, New Delhi, July 28, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo
 

An eagerly anticipated visit by United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the context of the Taliban advancing towards Kabul with assurances of Chinese and Pakistani support did not result in the formation of a strategy to prevent a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan by force.

It seemed to be an exercise in pursuit of the US global agenda of which Afghanistan was not a priority anymore.

The pictures of Taliban leaders being feted in China were flashed in the media even when Blinken and External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar were discussing Afghanistan.

But they merely repeated their pious wishes for a democratic, stable, inclusive government in Kabul.

Blinken revealed no strategy to stop the forceful takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, but merely reiterated the US commitment to remain engaged in Afghanistan and to support the Ashraf Ghani government without any elaboration of the nature of such support.

He seemed to expect that Pakistan would play a role and restrain the Taliban so that the US interests in Afghanistan would be protected.

The India-US partnership in Afghanistan was not raised as a possibility in bringing about stability in the region.

Nor was there any agreement on any kind of division of labour between India and the US with respect to Afghanistan.

Blinken characterised most of the ingredients of the growing 'vital India-US relationship' as a 'work in progress' including democracy in both countries, Indo-Pacific strategy, the Quad and COVID-19, indicating that the Biden administration had not reached final judgment on any of these.

His meetings with Tibetan representatives and activists on India's domestic issues such as the CAA, farm laws and others indicated that he had his own agenda to pursue in Delhi.

There was a time when India denied the facility for the American representative for Tibetan affairs to meet the Dalai Lama in India not to provoke China, but the open meeting with Tibetan leaders this time was a departure from existing practice.

'One of the elements that Americans admire most about India is the steadfast commitment to its people to democracy, pluralism, to human rights and fundamental freedoms,' Blinken said, but went about examining the way India functioned in a quest for 'self-correcting mechanisms' to "repair challenges' to democracy.

India, on the contrary, had not cast any aspersions of democracy in the US even when an insurrection threatened to reverse the election results.

IMAGE: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Charges d' Affaires Atul Keshap speak to civil society organisation representatives in New Delhi on July 28, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo

Blinken's preoccupation with China did not seem to include the emerging China-Pakistan axis in Afghanistan, but he stressed the importance of the Quad and announced President Biden's intention of convening a face to face meeting of the Quad without delay.

There was also talk of Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi visiting Washington later this year.

India-US relations in future, it appeared, would revolve around containment of China, though Blinken made it a point to say that the Quad was not a military alliance for India's sake.

Jaishankar added in good measure that China should not see any action by other countries as being aimed at China.

There was no indication, however, that the impasse on the Line of Actual Control was discussed or the US had shared any assessment of China's intentions in pausing disengagement in the remaining sectors in Ladakh.

Blinken's meeting with the Tibetan leaders may only have aggravated the situation on the Line of Actual Control.

There has been a stiffening of the US position on Tibet even during the Trump administration.

President Trump had signed a Tibetan Support Act in 2020 which had certain new elements.

The US expressed its intention to open a US consulate in Lhasa and stated that if it was not possible, China would not be allowed to open any new consulate in the US.

On the selection of the next Dalai Lama, it was stated that only the lamas should have a say and that any outsiders will not be allowed to interfere.

Financial provision was also made for scholarships for Tibetan students and also for the upkeep of their camps in India.

Perhaps, the meeting with the Tibetans was in connection with the more proactive position with regard to Tibetan exiles in India.

In the context of Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit to Tibet, the US signal in favour of the Tibetans was significant.

Combatting COVID-19 occupied a good part of the discussion and there was a specific commitment of $25 million to provide for vaccination in India.

Blinken linked the US assistance to the timely assistance that India gave to the US in the initial stage of the pandemic.

No multilateral effort was indicated, but there was no doubt that the US would not be found lacking in the case of extending support to India.

We should expect that the US would be liberal about intellectual property rights of vaccines and their components.

The competition with China is also an element in the COVID-19 issue as the US is still pressing for investigating the source of the 'Wuhan Virus'.

The Blinken visit indicated that the Biden administration is still somewhat tentative about the specifics of its relations with India.

The general approach is positive, particularly in the context of China, but contrary to Trump's position, there was no clear commitment on Biden's part to stand by India in the event a deterioration of the border situation.

This may have to do with the fact that the US has not yet reached definitive conclusions about its relations with China itself and India's role in it.

Prime Minister Modi's visit to Washington later this year may be an appropriate opportunity work out the equations more clearly.

Ambassador T P Sreenivasan (IFS 1967) is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA.
A frequent contributor to Rediff.com, you can read his fascinating columns here.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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