US secretary of state in India; will meet PM, Jaishankar today

US secretary of state Anthony Blinken on his first visit to India will meet foreign minister S Jaishankar for discussions on Wednesday at a time when the US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be plunging the country into civil war, and when the China challenge has become acute for both US and India.

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This will be the fourth meeting between the two leaders. Blinken is the third senior US official to visit India this year, having been preceded by the defence secretary Lloyd Austin and special envoy for climate, John Kerry. Biden and Modi have met virtually on three occasions thus far — at the virtual Quad summit, the climate leaders’ meet and the G-7 summit.

Blinken’s first meeting of the morning will be with NSA Ajit Doval. He will call on the Prime Minister late afternoon before leaving India.

Afghanistan and the Quad will take up a lot of the discussions on Wednesday. The fallout of the US withdrawal is having an impact on all countries surrounding Afghanistan, while India believes it is providing Pakistan with another opportunity to continue its support to terror groups targeting India and Afghanistan. This was affirmed by the US side, which said the US and India were “closely coordinating” on Afghanistan.

Since the foreign and defence ministers are scheduled to meet in the US this autumn for the 2+2 ministerial, sources in the Indian government said, defence trade and technologies as well as exercises will be part of the discussions.

According to a statement by the US state department, the US has “authorised over $20 billion in defence sales to India.”

A Quad foreign ministers’ meeting may be scheduled soon, while the US is hoping to host an in-person Quad summit in Washington in September-October.

The US side has indicated that they would raise the issue of human rights and violations of civil rights by the government, after reports of hacking and snooping phones of opposition members, activists and journalists using the Israeli Pegasus software became public. The issue has roiled the media as well as Parliament, with opposition parties obstructing functioning of the legislature on the subject. The government has pushed back against potential US activism on this matter. Government sources said this week, “Issues such as human rights and democracy are universal and extend beyond a particular national or cultural perspective. India is proud of its achievements in both domains and is always glad to share experiences. As a long-standing pluralistic society, India is open to engaging those who now recognise the value of diversity.”

The Blinken visit has got top billing by the Indian government with the US as its top international partner. Sources here said, the visit would “be an opportunity to further consolidate bilateral cooperation across a vast agenda. Issues like augmenting trade and investment, and tapping opportunities in healthcare, education, digital domain, innovation and security, will be important elements of the conversation.”

Covid management and helping economies recover will also depend on whether the Quad — of which US and India and members — can manufacture enough vaccines in time for countries in the Indo-Pacific . It is currently a difficult time as most of these countries are in their third wave of the coronavirus, while India has stopped exporting its vaccines to concentrate its production for vaccinating its own population. However, continuing the conversation he started when he visited the US in May, Jaishankar is expected to push the US to keep supply chains open for ingredients for vaccine manufacture. India will be opening up its vaccine production for global supplies in a few months, sources believe, certainly by early 2022.

Officials here said India will push for resumption of international travel, with protective protocols in place, this being key to resuming economic activity “especially easing mobility of students, professionals, business travellers, family reunions, humanitarian cases, etc. The need for resilient supply chains of critical medicines and healthcare equipment is likely to come up.”

Climate change is a priority area for both countries and some attention will be paid to this, sources said.

On a global scale, Blinken and Jaishankar are expected to touch on some of the pressing issues demanding attention —“political and cultural rebalancing are important trends. India supports a truly multipolar, democratic and diverse world order and expects international conversations to reflect this evolution. We believe in equity and fairness, whether in development, climate change or global decision-making.”

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