US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in New Delhi on Tuesday on the first leg of a two nation Asian tour that is expected to shape the contours of India-US ties over the next few years including in the Indo-Pacific.
This is Blinken’s first visit to India as Secretary of State and follows those by two of his cabinet colleagues – US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin who was in New Delhi in March and Special Envoy on Climate Change John Kerry who visited in April.
Coinciding with the visit, a statement put out by the US State Department described India as a “leading global power and a key U.S. partner in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”
“Namaste @SecBlinken ! Welcome to Incredible India,” said a Twitter post from the US embassy in New Delhi. Pictures of Blinken exiting his aircraft holding aloft an umbrella on a rain soaked evening were also posted with the tweet.
There have been a number of calls between Blinken and his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar and the two have met thrice – since US president Joe Biden took office on 20 January. Jaishankar visited the US in May and there were also two meetings with Blinken on the sidelines of two separate multilateral events. But Blinken’s first visit is expected to set the tone for ties under the Biden administration.
“Wheels up for my trip to New Delhi and Kuwait City. I look forward to consultations with our partners to further cooperation in support of our shared interests in the Indo-Pacific and Middle East,” Blinken said in a Twitter post just ahead of his departure from Washington.
According to a schedule put out by the Indian foreign ministry, Blinken is to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday afternoon after talks with Jaishankar.
On the table for talks with Jaishankar are an array of topics – the Indo-Pacific, Afghanistan, the rise of China and a coordinated covid-19 response.
“Secretary Blinken’s visit is preparatory to the Quad summit likely to be held later this year,” said Commodore (rtd) C Uday Bhaskar, Director of the Society for Policy Studies – a think-tank in New Delhi. He was referring to a summit of the leaders of India, US, Japan and Australia that is planned to be held in person in September. Leaders of the four countries met virtually on 12 March.
The Blinken visit will also serve to “pull together all the diverse strands” of the bilateral relationship, Bhaskar said pointing to the security domain, the covid-19 pandemic and other issues.
The US statement on Tuesday said that Blinken’s visit would “reaffirm the United States’ commitment to strengthening our partnership and underscore cooperation on our shared priorities.”
“The United States and India have a strong strategic partnership founded on shared values and a commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The United States supports India’s emergence as a leading global power and vital partner in efforts to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is a region of peace, stability, and growing prosperity and economic inclusion,” it said. The two countries “cooperate on a wide range of diplomatic, economic and security issues, including defence, non-proliferation, regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, shared democratic values, counterterrorism, climate change, health, energy, trade and investment, peacekeeping, the environment, education, science and technology, agriculture, space, and oceans,” it said. The US was looking forward to hosting India’s defence and foreign ministers for the next round of 2+2 talks, it added.
On defence cooperation, the statement said “cooperation is reaching new heights, including through information sharing, liaison officers, increasingly complex exercises like Malabar, and defense enabling agreements… As of 2020, the United States has authorized over $20 billion in defense sales to India.”
On cooperation during the covid-19 pandemic, the statement recalled the assistance extended by the US during a brutal second wave of infections in April-May.
“The United States and India are partnering to strengthen the global response to COVID-19, on issues ranging from addressing infectious disease outbreaks to strengthening health systems to securing global supply chains,” it said.
Blinken has also indicated that he would like to gauge by when India would be ready to begin sharing covid-19 vaccines with the world during his visit to India. India, which was supposed to manufacture a billion doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccines as per an agreement reached at the March Quad leaders’ summit, is now repurposing all its production to meet domestic demands after a brutal second wave of covid-19 infections.
“This is such a critical country in the fight against covid-19,” Blinken said in an interview to MSNBC last week.
“Of course, they’re focused understandably on their own internal challenges now, but when that production engine gets fully going and can distribute again to the rest of the world, that’s going to make a big difference, too. So I’ll be talking to our Indian friends about that next week,” he said.
On the Indian side, strengthening trade and investment, exploring new opportunities in healthcare, education, innovation, defence, and security are some of the subjects of priority.
Implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, keeping up pressure on Pakistan to give up support to terrorism, freer movement of people especially students now that covid-19 cases in India were easing, and the importance of consistent supply chains for vaccine manufacturing will also be among India’s key talking points, two people familiar with the matter said.