Antony Blinken came across as a genuine nice guy during his recent visit to India. He was likeable, humble, willing to listen. When he talked, it seemed the US secretary of state was standing on the ground, not lecturing from the podium.
This is a sea change from the Madeleine Albright or the Donald Rumsfeld years — the high noon of unipolarity and US exceptionalism. “We are America,” Albright, the then secretary of state, had bragged in 1998. “We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future…”
Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, once explained to a central Asian leader what it means to be close to the US: “It’s like getting into bed with a hippopotamus… At first it feels all warm and fuzzy. But then, in the middle of the night, he rolls on top of you. And worst part is, the son of a bitch doesn’t even know you’re there.”
That was a different world.
Blinken has none of the swagger of Albright or Rumsfeld. And just as well. The US is confronted with a China that seeks global supremacy and has chalked out a grand strategy to do so. Rush Doshi, a China expert and one of Joe Biden’s advisors on China policy in US National Security Council, reckons that China aims to surpass America and become the new global hegemon by 2049, marking 100 years of Chinese Communist Party’s reign.
In his new book The Long Game, Doshi writes, “Washington is belatedly coming to terms with this reality, and the result is the most consequential reassessment of its China policy in over a generation.”
One of the things that has emerged from the churn under way in America is a plan to balance China’s sharp, assertive rise by creating a balance of power in the geography that Beijing currently dominates. Washington has devised a policy for it — the Indo-Pacific policy.
According to Kurt Campbell and Doshi, two key figures in Biden administration’s China strategy, Indo-Pacific policy means incorporating “the need for a balance of power; the need for an order that the region’s states recognize as legitimate; and the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both.”
And India lies at the front and center of the strategy, highlighting a remarkable policy continuation from Donald Trump — who devised it — to Joe Biden, who aims to strengthen it further by cementing the underlying partnerships, imposing faith in a coalition-driven competition with China.
Touching down in India, Blinken described the US-India relationship thus: “It is, simply put, one of the most consequential relationships we have with any country on Earth. We know and we say it’s vital for security, for prosperity, for the future of a free and open Indo-Pacific; but when you think about it, as I like to say, none of the really big challenges that we face as a country, challenges that have a direct impact on the lives of our fellow citizens, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s the climate crisis, whether it’s the impact of emerging technologies on all of our lives, not a single one of these problems can be addressed by any one country acting alone, even the United States. And it’s manifestly true, in my judgment at least, that not a single one of these challenges can be met without the United States and India working closely together. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”
That’s a pretty explicit endorsement from a key figure in the Biden administration that has showered extraordinary attention on India. Biden has had multiple virtual meetings with Prime MInister Narendra Modi, the US has so far dispatched John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, and Lloyd Austin, the defence secretary, to India.
Blinken has had four meetings already with India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar and on Wednesday, General James C McConville, US Army’s Chief of Staff, called on India’s COAS General MM Naravane to hold talks on various key aspects of bilateral defence and security cooperation.
On 29 July, General Naravane met the visiting Commander of US Special Operations Command General Richard D Clarke who was in India for three days.
That’s just in six months of Biden’s coming to power, not to speak of the over 60 dialogue mechanisms that both countries share, covering virtually every domain. In fact, even as Trump crashed and burnt nearly all of America’s partnerships, including trans-Atlantic ones, on India his tenure coincided with a further deepening of strategic and security ties with Trump developing a close personal bond with Modi.
To quote from Jaishankar’s opening remarks ahead of the delegation-level talks during Blinken’s visit, “Our bilateral cooperation has vastly expanded in the last few years. They, today, cover virtually all domains of contemporary relevance. Our interests are shared, our concerns are similar and our convergences are strong.”
One would have thought that such a robust engagement and convergence of policies and interests, spread out over an expansive bilateral, regional and global agenda would get ample play leading up to and during Blinken’s visit. Instead, as C Raja Mohan points out, “Some of the questions that animate the media and political classes have not changed since the 1990s. Does the US president want to mediate on Kashmir? Will the American talk of democracy and human rights derail Delhi’s relationship with the US?”
The public discourse in India ahead of Blinken’s visit was entirely focused on whether he will put India on the mat over perceived “backsliding on democracy and human rights”, a spurious narrative fashioned by a certain section in media and the strategic community who hide their political antipathy towards the Modi government behind a veneer of policy disagreement.
Into this vortex has been added the political frustration of an Opposition that has been reduced to demanding foreign intervention to achieve its political ambitions, having repeatedly failed at the electoral hustings. This raised a counter-discourse that pointed out the treachery and self-hatred associated with such a demand.
Yet, it would be unwise to lay the controversy entirely at India’s door. There are several undercurrents at work. In deepening its partnership with India, the Biden administration has faced resistance from within. The progressive corner of the Congressional Democrats have a derision towards the democratically elected ruling dispensation in India of the kind that Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, calls “a derangement syndrome.”
Into this has been added the political and ideological agenda of US think-tanks and liberal media against the Modi government. These outlets — be it Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, or CNN — and institutions have driven conversation in the DC and pressurised the Biden administration on India, repeatedly questioning if India is “worthy” of being a partner of the US.
This phony posturing over “values” not only misinterprets the state of democratic values and human rights in India, it also cleverly absolves America’s checkered history on this issue.
A case in point is the narrative that was built just ahead of Blinken’s arrival in India. To a question by an American journalist, who claimed that “Modi government sort of got a free pass on a lot of the anti-Muslim legislation and actions that they took”, Dean Thompson, a high-ranking US state department official said, “with respect to the human rights and democracy question, yes, you’re right; I will tell you that we will raise it, and we will continue that conversation…”
This raised quite furore in India and Blinken knew that a trap was laid for him. To his credit, the US secretary of state was smart. He did his homework and was careful to avoid any condescension or evangelism on democracy, pointing out that both India and the US are imperfect democracies striving towards being better and was at pains to add both countries engage on this issue as “equal peers”.
This at once took the sting away from the pre-arrival controversy and may even have disappointed those in India who wanted the high-ranking Biden official to admonish Modi and present them with a political stick.
During the post-ministerial presser, Blinken said “few relationships in the world that are more vital than the one between the United States and India” and “strengthening the partnership with India is one of the United States top foreign policy priorities.”
On the questions over human rights, the US secretary of state said: “We… recognise that every democracy, starting with our own is a work in progress. And when we discuss these issues, I certainly do it from a starting point of humility, we’ve seen the challenges that our own democracy has faced in the past and faces today… So I say all this because as friends, because we talk to each other about these issues, we talk about the challenges that we’re both facing in renewing and strengthening our democracies. And I think, humbly we can learn from each other. Because no democracy, regardless of how large or how old has it all figured out.”
It invited an equal response from Jaishankar who said, “the quest for a more perfect union applies as much to the Indian democracy as it does to the American one, indeed, to all democracies.” This was a mature dialogue between two democracies that are aware of the domestic challenges shaping their policies and discourse and are willing to have an honest exchange.
Media reports suggest that the US side did pick up the contentious issues during the two-hour meeting, but there was a “gentle pushback” from the Indian delegation.
But by refraining from public posturing, Blinken has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of trust where India doesn’t feel discomfited to discuss issues that New Delhi contends are too complex to be straitjacketed within the western narrative on human rights and democracy.
To note Jaishankar’s comments, “It is the moral obligation of all polities to really right wrongs, when they have been done, including historically and many of the decisions and policies you've seen in last few years, fall in that category. And third, that, freedoms are important, we all value them, but never equate freedom with non-governance or lack of governance or poor governance. They are two completely different things.”
Two points are worth making from this exchange. Revitalising democracy is high on Biden’s agenda who, unlike Trump, sees the fight against an authoritarian China as an existential crisis and hopes to build a “community of democracies” to resist its rise. Behind Biden move is an apprehension that the democratic model is losing its luster and Chinese success is providing states with an authoritarian option that is seemingly more attractive.
Yet, it is a different world where the US is perceived as a declining power, and Biden is aware of the limitations of an evangelical approach. He, therefore, has to be skillful in promoting democracy. Placing it within the context of bilateral relations without appearing to be overbearing, prescriptive and off-putting.
As Alyssa Ayres, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in Foreign Affairs, “The Biden administration will need to put values back into the US-Indian relationship without severing the strategic ties that have flourished over the past two decades… It should pursue a reciprocal discussion with India, acknowledging that the United States has work of its own to do and underscoring the need for both nations to live up to their democratic values.”
To balance this imperative with the domestic pulls and pressures, it can be said that the Biden administration pulled off a clever maneuver. It quelled queries at home by promising to put “values” high on agenda with India, and once in New Delhi, Blinken appeared a picture of humility who’s willing to discuss these issues as an “equal”.
It seems to have worked, because Blinken has managed to both highlight the topic, while focusing the discourse away from other areas of importance.
One of these areas where the US and India seem to have struck convergence of purpose and interests is Afghanistan. When Blinken said “an Afghanistan that does not respect the rights of its people, an Afghanistan that commits atrocities against its own people would become a pariah State”, or “I think we largely see Afghanistan the same way. We're both committed to the proposition that there is no military solution to the conflict that afflicts Afghanistan, there has to be a peaceful resolution, which requires the Taliban and the Afghan government to come to the table. And we both agree, I think strongly that any future government Afghanistan has to be inclusive and fully representative of the Afghan people. But ultimately, this has to be an Afghan led and Afghan owned peace process that we will all support,” he is mirroring the Indian position.
New Delhi has maintained, even as the epitaph is being written of the Ashraf Ghani government, that a forceful capture of power by Taliban will invite delegitimisation, and the only way forward is a negotiated political settlement.
Blinken’s visit also provided clarity on the role and purpose of Quad, and the importance Quad lays on strengthening the global response to COVID-19 and setting up a global health security system. Kurt Campbell, Biden’s administration’s top official on Indo-Pacific policy, had said in June that the Quad nations (India, Australia, Japan and the US) remain on track to meet their goal of producing at least one billion vaccines for the Asia region by the end of 2022 and Blinken confirmed that Covid was among the top agenda items during his meeting with Jaishankar, and India and the US are determined to end the pandemic, including through the quad vaccine partnership.
Blinken was quite clear that the Quad doesn’t have a security component or isn’t a military alliance, but was emphatic that Quad’s “purpose is again, just to advance cooperation, on regional challenges, while reinforcing international rules and values that we believe together underpin peace, prosperity and stability in the region.”
Blinken’s visit was successful. It is evident that both nations are finding pockets of space and purpose to increase cooperation and engagement, and issues of convergence far outstrip those of divergence. It also became evident that when America, as the bigger power, manages to come across as unassuming, it finds an India that is willing to be open, ready to challenge its own entrenched ideological suspicions.