Amidst media reports of the capture of a large swath of territory in Afghanistan by the Taliban, it was speculated that Kabul would be at the top of the agenda of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to India. It is because the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the growing foothold of the Taliban have a direct bearing on India’s security.
Well, Afghanistan was on the agenda. But on his first visit as the Secretary of State, Blinken reviewed the entire India-US relationship with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, held discussions with Ajit Doval, and called on PM Modi. Besides covering bilateral relations including defence, security, trade, business, investment, energy, education, Science and technology, Blinken and Jaishankar, also exchanged views on Covid-19, Indo-Pacific, Quad, climate change, terrorism, cybercrime, snooping, etc. Their comments during the joint press conference suggested that their talks were frank and candid; there was convergence on several issues but their perceptions differed on some issues as well.
Jaishankar’s initial remarks provided a context: “Our bilateral cooperation has vastly expanded in the last few years. Our interests are shared, our concerns are similar and our convergences are strong.” Probably, shared interests and similar concerns relate to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, and given India’s location and past experiences, the concerns are similar but not exactly the same.
And strong convergence is as well discernible with regards to Indo-Pacific, Quad, terrorism, cybercrime, growing menace of intelligence gathering, and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic
Jaishankar emphasized, “Peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific are as important for both of us as democratic stability in Afghanistan. Deepening the Quad as a qualitative platform is in our mutual interest and we must work together even more closely on key contemporary challenges like terrorism, climate change, pandemics, and resilient supply chains.”
Recollecting how India had helped the US 2020 and how the US provided “exceptional” help when India was battling the second wave of the pandemic, Blinken said, “We are determined to end this pandemic, and India and the US will work together to do it, including through the Quad vaccine partnership, which will bring safe and effective vaccines to others across the region. India and the US together will be leaders in bringing this pandemic to an end and setting up a stronger global health security system..”
The US has already extended Covid-19 related assistance of $200 million. Blinken announced additional assistance of $25 million. Total assistance from the US including from private sources and Indian Americans has crossed over $500 million.
Both Blinken and Jaishankar reiterated that the peace process in Afghanistan must ensure her sovereignty; it has to be Afghanistan led and Afghanistan owned government leading to the establishment of a democracy representing all ethnic groups, and the sovereign establishment will uphold human rights including the rights of women and will not allow the return of terrorist groups who carry out attacks inside Afghanistan and against its neighbors.
Blinken stressed that there was no military solution to the situation in Afghanistan, and both, the Government and the Taliban must come to table and strive to set up an inclusive and fully representative administration.
Blinken dampened the Taliban’s triumphal bravado by asserting that, “Afghanistan would be ‘pariah state’ if Taliban took control by force.” He also dismissed suggestions that with the exit of its soldiers, the US will wash its hands off Kabul. “Even as we withdraw our forces from Afghanistan,” he said, “We remain engaged in Afghanistan. We don’t only have a strong embassy there but we also have important programs that support the country economically through development and security assistance.”
Airstrikes by planes and unmanned drones from outside Afghanistan during the last week signal that the US intends to bolster the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and allow the Ghani government not to be run over by the Taliban, at least for now.
Blinken applauded India’s role in Afghanistan, and said, “India and US share a strong interest in peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan. As a credible partner in the region, India has and will continue to make a vital contribution to Afghanistan’s stability and development.”
Unfortunately, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran don’t share this perception. Russia has held the meeting of the TROIKA (Russia, China, and Pakistan) and a large Taliban delegation was received in China. While the US exits from Afghanistan, Imran Khan has the gall to pronounce that the US “messed it up in Afghanistan”.
Blinken clarified that Quad wasn’t a military alliance and its objective “was to advance cooperation on regional challenges while reinforcing international rules and values that we believe together underpin peace, prosperity, stability in the region.”
Jaishankar’s said, “China needs to get over the idea that others are doing something to target them.” China does indeed believe that Indo-Pacific and QUAD are essentially anti-China fronts. Russia supports China’s assessment here too.
Like Biden, Blinken sees US relations with China as marked by competition, rivalry, and cooperation; Climate Change can’t be addressed without China’s close cooperation.
Nevertheless, India sees China differently, given the long-pending border dispute, bloody clashes in Galwan valley last year, the impasse on the LAC, and the adverse trade balance.
America acknowledges Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the table and its continuing relevance for containing them and for peace and stability in Afghanistan. But we have misgivings about Pakistan’s role in a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul and also apprehend a spike in terrorist attacks against India.
Blinken thanked Jaishankar on Twitter for “collaborative discussion on many areas of cooperation, including efforts to support peace and stability in Afghanistan. India is one of our most valued partners, and the US welcomes India’s emergence as a leading global player.”
Blinken’s dialogue with Ajit Doval is believed to have covered Afghanistan, Indo-Pacific, bilateral defense and security, and economic technology. He also exchanged views on contemporary and futuristic issues related to regional and global security.
As anticipated, Blinken held a round table meeting with the representatives of the civil societies. His stress on democratic values, freedoms including freedoms of religion and expression, rule of law, human rights, and the role of civil societies, were couched in a polite, non-accusatory tone; he mentioned that both the US and India, the largest democracies, weren’t perfect and that they were work in progress. Expectedly, Jaishankar countered Blinken by saying that those who expect certain standards from others must first achieve those standards themselves.
In March 2018, the Indian government had advised the Tibetan Bureau to shift the function commemorating 60 years of Dalai Lama’s exile to Dharamshala. Following Galwan Valley clashes, there seems a shift; we are signaling to China that we can play the Tibetan card. On 6th June, PM Modi telephoned Dalai Lama to wish him on his birth anniversary; China wasn’t amused.
And China wasn’t pleased that Blinken’s meeting with the civil society was also attended by the Director of the Tibetan Bureau in Delhi, Geshe Dorji Damdul. Blinken also separately met a Rep of the Dali Lama, Ngodup Dongchung, reflecting Biden’s support for the Tibetan cause.
The US has openly said that Dalai Lama’s successor should be selected by the Tibetan people.Blinken’s emphasis on the shared value of democracy provoked a sharp reaction from China. “One man and one vote and a multi-party system is not the sole form of democracy…it shouldn’t be used to smear other countries and stoke confrontation,” said the Chinese spokesman, Zhao Lijian.
Evidently, though physically absent, shadows of China loomed large on Blinken’s talks in Delhi.
The writer, a former Ambassador, writes on political and strategic affairs. The views expressed are personal.