China Weighs Heavy: Blinken Sets Humble Tone in Delhi

New Delhi: On his first official visit to India, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought common ground with New Delhi in their disputes with China and warned of “rising global threats to democracy,” but told reporters “when we discuss these issues, I certainly do it from a starting point of humility.”

Blinken earlier had issued a veiled warning about Indian democracy backsliding in his first official visit to New Delhi.

Blinken told civil society groups -- his first appointment before meeting Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- that the United States and India are "connected by shared values" such as rule of law and freedom of religion.

But he added: "Both of our democracies are works in progress... As I said before, sometimes that process is painful. Sometimes it's ugly. But the strength of democracy is to embrace it."

"At a time of rising global threats to democracy and international freedoms -– we talk about a democratic recession –- it's vital that we two world-leading democracies continue to stand together in support of these ideals."

Blinken’s language shows the difficult balancing act President Biden faces when it comes to taking on China over values. It is seeking to rally friendly nations against an increasingly assertive Beijing, while grappling with the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection at home and the questions about the human rights records of key allies, including India.

Taliban, China

In the talks proper, Indian officials were expected to express alarm over Taliban gains in Afghanistan and to press Blinken for more support in New Delhi's border standoff with China.

US-India relations have historically been prickly but China's growing assertiveness pushed them closer, particularly since deadly clashes last year on the disputed Indo-Chinese Himalayan frontier.

India is part of the Quad alliance with the United States, Japan and Australia, seen as a bulwark against China.

But according to Brahma Chellaney, strategic affairs expert at India's Centre for Policy Research, US backing has "slipped a notch" since Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump as president.

"India is locked in a military standoff with China but unlike top Trump administration officials who publicly condemned China's aggression and backed India, no one in Team Biden has so far lent open support to India," Chellaney told AFP.

Biden has further riled New Delhi with Washington's "rushed and poorly planned exit from Afghanistan," Chellaney added.

India is worried that a possible takeover by the Taliban, which it sees as backed by its arch-rival Pakistan, will turn the country into a base for militants to attack India.

The Taliban welcomed virulently anti-Indian extremists when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

A hijacked Indian airliner was flown to the Taliban bastion of Kandahar in 1999.

India, a firm backer of the Afghan government with billions of dollars in development aid, recently evacuated 50 staff from its Kandahar consulate due to the worsening security situation.

The talks in a monsoon-soaked New Delhi were also set to cover joint efforts on making Covid-19 vaccines and climate change.

India, on course to become the planet's populous country, is the world's third-biggest carbon emitter and is on the front line of the ravages of global warming.

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