US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet his Indian counterpart and other officials on Wednesday before heading to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the China rivals seek to deepen their cooperation and iron out differences.
Blinken, in his first visit to the country since joining US President Joe Biden’s administration, is expected to discuss supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, the security situation in Afghanistan as well as India’s human rights record on Wednesday.
Speaking to a group of civil society leaders at a New Delhi hotel, Blinken said that the relationship between the United States and India was “one of the most important in the world”.
“The Indian people and the American people believe in human dignity and equality of opportunity, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms including freedom of religion and belief … these are the fundamental tenets of democracies like ours,” he said.
“And of course, both of our democracies are works in progress. As friends we talk about that.”
Attendees included religious leaders such as Geshe Dorji Damdul of New Delhi’s Tibet House, a cultural centre of the Dalai Lama.
In his New Delhi meetings, Blinken is expected to raise India’s human rights record as well as a recent religion-based citizenship law widely seen as discriminatory towards Muslims.
Ahead of Blinken’s visit, India’s foreign ministry said the country was proud of its pluralistic traditions and happy to discuss the issue with the top US diplomat.
Modi’s government has faced allegations it has suppressed dissent, pursued divisive policies to appeal to its Hindu nationalist base and alienated Muslims, the country’s biggest minority.
Blinken is scheduled to have talks with the Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar later on Wednesday.
“Discussions will focus on regional and global issues of mutual interest – including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indo-Pacific region, Afghanistan and cooperation at the UN,” the foreign ministry said.
Both sides will discuss the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is rapidly expanding the territory it controls in the wake of a US troop withdrawal.
Despite the Taliban’s stated aim of overthrowing the Afghan government, US President Joe Biden has announced that his administration will end its Afghanistan mission on August 31 – after almost 20 years.
The evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific region against the backdrop of China’s military posturing also features prominently on the agenda, Indian analysts said.
The New Delhi talks are expected to lay the groundwork for a summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US – later this year, Indian media reported.
The grouping is seen as a regional bulwark against Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.
After wrapping up his meetings in New Delhi, Blinken will travel to Kuwait late on Wednesday.