American Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to make his first visit to India “very soon”, sources said, indicating that planning for the visit is under way for a meeting as early as next week.
“The dates are still being finalised,” an official told The Hindu , confirming the visit, while another official said meetings were being scheduled in New Delhi at the “end of July”.
Mr. Blinken’s visit is expected to prepare the way for the Quad summit and bilateral meetings between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Joseph Biden due to be held in Washington later this year, and is also expected to discuss the emerging situation in Afghanistan, including Taliban advances after the U.S. troop pull-out with Indian officials. Mr. Blinken’s proposed visit, which is yet to be announced, could coincide with the 3-day visit of Afghanistan Army Chief Lt. Gen. Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai to Delhi.
India and the U.S. have a wide array of bilateral relations to discuss and Mr. Biden has made it clear that the America’s Indo-Pacific strategy that includes India is an area of importance, particularly given increasing tensions between the U.S. and China.
India and the U.S. have pending talks on a free trade agreement as well as India’s demand for a restoration of its GSP status for exports, that was rescinded by the previous Trump administration, and the two sides will discuss improving economic, defence, energy cooperation, as well as cooperation on countering COVID-19. The U.S.’s Quad initiative to produce a billion vaccines is based on Indian production. Indemnity issues for the U.S. vaccine manufacturers, which have held up supplies to India have still not been resolved, and are likely to come up during the talks.
Despite problems from the spread of the pandemic, the Biden administration has made New Delhi a prominent stopover since it was sworn in in January, and Mr. Blinken and Mr. Jaishankar established early contacts over a number of telephone conversations.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was the first senior official of the Biden administration to visit Delhi in March followed by Mr. Biden’s special envoy on climate change John Kerry. The Modi government too has made ties with the new administration a priority and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited Washington in May, and held talks with Mr. Blinken in London on the sidelines of the G-7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting also in May and in Rome at the G-20 Foreign Minister’s meeting in June.
The Quad summit including leaders of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, which was held virtually earlier this year, is expected to be held in Washington with the leaders ‘in-person’ in September, barring scheduling issues and developments of the COVID situation.
After the second wave in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to cancel plans to travel to Europe and the U.K. over the summer, and it remains to be seen whether he would be able to travel to the U.S. in September, as well as to the G-20 summit in Italy at the end of October, or the Climate Change COP 26 Summit in the U.K. in early November, which he has been invited to.
As Secretary of State, Mr. Blinken’s tenure has been marked by a flurry of international visits and for some plain speaking, and it is likely that his visit to Delhi will see some mention of the U.S.’s concerns on human rights as well, as General (Retd.) Austin did earlier this year.
Apart from comments by a senior State department official on “increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and detention of human rights activists and journalists in India” in April, and its report criticising “government practises” on minority rights and the situation in Jammu and Kashmir released in May, the State department also issued a strong statement on Tuesday over the Pegasus spyware case and “extrajudicial surveillance”.
However, officials say human rights issues are part of the normal discussions between two “close partners and friends” like India and the U.S. who meet regularly.