If this week is the Biden administration’s full-court press in Asia, then Secretary of State Antony Blinken is playing point guard with his first trip to India.
That makes Blinken’s visit to the world’s largest democracy critical, amid global challenges like COVID-19 and climate change that Blinken has stressed require global cooperation and as ties with China harden.
That relationship took another nasty turn this past weekend. Beijing issued a strident warning to Washington as Blinken’s deputy Wendy Sherman met her Chinese counterparts in China on Sunday – again accusing the U.S. of bullying and scapegoating.
In addition to Blinken’s high-profile visit, Biden has deployed his Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Southeast Asia to meet key partners, while Sherman consulted top allies Japan and South Korea before her meetings in China.
India, with a population larger than China’s and an economy third only to the U.S. and China, is seen as critical in Washington to pushing back on Beijing. But after a decadeslong bipartisan push to pull India closer to the United States’ orbit, there is a concern in some circles over India’s democratic backsliding, especially on minorities’ rights, political dissent and freedom of the press.
Those are issues that Blinken has said will be at the forefront of Biden's foreign policy, but they may take a back seat to pressing geopolitical priorities, like boosting India’s production and export of COVID vaccines or decreasing carbon emissions and seeking other solutions to climate change.
Dean Thompson, the top U.S. diplomat for South and Central Asia, said India’s record on human rights will be addressed during Blinken’s meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
"We will raise it, and we will continue that conversation because we firmly believe that we have more values in common on those fronts than we don’t," he said – a collaborative, not critical tone.
Thompson also made clear that the meetings in New Delhi “will focus on expanding our security, defense, cyber, and counterterrorism cooperation” and boosting their “increased convergence on regional and global issues.” In particular, Blinken himself emphasized ending the pandemic as swiftly as possible by unleashing India’s vaccines overseas again after its own horrific outbreak led to restrictions on exports.
"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," he said in an interview with MSNBC Friday.
That pause in India’s distribution of vaccines has delayed efforts to combat the pandemic, although Thompson said that a billion-dose initiative by the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia is still aiming to roll out in 2022. But as cases rise around the world again, including in the U.S., there’s a new urgency to speed up global distribution and stave off any new variants.
Beyond vaccines and climate, it’s clear Biden officials hope to pick up where predecessors left off and boost ties with India to counter what they consider China’s aggressive behavior.
Wendy Sherman, the No. 2 at the State Department, met her Chinese counterparts in the northern port city Tianjin on Sunday, urging open lines of communication and saying the U.S. “do[es] not seek conflict,” according to the State Department.
But she also carried a laundry list of Chinese behaviors that the U.S. opposes, including economic espionage and cyber theft, territorial claims like in the South China Sea, and human rights violations in Hong Kong and against Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province.
The U.S. says many of these issues are evidence of China undermining the world’s rules. But China has dismissed that in increasingly vocal and dramatic tones, including during a very public spat between Blinken and Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts in March.
"U.S. policy seems to be demanding cooperation when it wants something from China; decoupling, cutting off supplies, blockading or sanctioning China when it believes it has an advantage; and resorting to conflict and confrontation at all costs," Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said during the meetings, according to China’s Foreign Ministry. All of these issues the U.S. raised are China’s business as a sovereign country, it added, accusing the U.S. of bullying.
Not long ago, India was largely neutral on these issues. But it has also now borne the brunt of Chinese action and waded into its own hostilities with Beijing. Last year high in the Himalayas, security forces from the two countries even sparred in hand-to-hand combat over their disputed border.
In the year since then, Modi’s government has taken steps to penalize China, including banning dozens of Chinese apps like WeChat and TikTok.
That’s helped to push India closer to the so-called “Quad,” with Japan, Australia and the U.S.
Biden held the first leader-level summit of the group as one of his first foreign meetings of his administration, with Blinken’s trip this week expected to help lay the groundwork for another – and the first in-person – in the months to come.