(This was originally posted in Hindustan Times)
The situation in Afghanistan and a coordinated Covid-19 response will be key issues on the agenda for US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s engagements with Indian interlocutors during his two-day visit beginning on Tuesday. The Indian side has also indicated that it is prepared to engage with the US on issues such as human rights and democracy, which American officials have said Blinken intends to raise during his maiden visit to New Delhi after assuming office earlier this year.
Blinken is the third high-ranking official of the Biden administration to travel to India after defence secretary Lloyd Austin in March and special envoy for climate change John Kerry in April. He will meet external affairs minister S Jaishankar, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday before travelling to Kuwait on the next leg of his tour.
People familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity on Monday that the security situation in Afghanistan will be a key issue during Blinken’s visit as the Indian side believes US support for Afghan forces over the next few months will be crucial for retaining the gains made under the democratic system in Kabul over the past 20 years.
The Taliban stepped up its campaign to capture territory across Afghanistan once the US made it clear that it intended to complete the drawdown of its troops by next month. The US is keen on some sort of power-sharing arrangement in Kabul after facing criticism from some quarters for the nature of its withdrawal.
The Indian side, on the other hand, is expected to raise the implications of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the need for sustained pressure on Pakistan over terror financing and terrorist sanctuaries, the people cited above said.
A coordinated Covid-19 response, including open and consistent supply chains for materials and items required for producing vaccines, will figure in the discussions in line with India’s plans to ramp up production for both domestic vaccination and subsequent global supplies, the people said.
Further engagements under the rubric of the Indo-Pacific, including a possible meeting of Quad foreign ministers, an in-person Quad Summit and the Quad vaccine partnership, and bilateral contacts such as the 2+2 meeting of defence and foreign ministers are also expected to figure in the discussions.
Blinken’s visit is an opportunity to “continue the high-level bilateral dialogue and bolster the India-US global strategic partnership”, the external affairs ministry said last week while announcing the visit. “Both sides will review the robust and multifaceted India-US bilateral relations, and potential for consolidating them further,” it added.