U.S. Moves to Assure India on Afghan Withdrawal, Regional Security

U.S. Moves to Assure India on Afghan Withdrawal, Regional Security

11:53 - Secretary of state visits New Delhi in Biden administration push on Asia

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting India this week as the Biden administration seeks to reassure a key Asian partner over the U.S. and allied military withdrawal from Afghanistan and works to tighten security ties amid concern about Chinese influence in the region.

Mr. Blinken will meet Wednesday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, with a U.S. agenda that officials said includes Covid-19 response, security, defense and cyber issues as well as counterterrorism cooperation. An Indian official said trade, investment, healthcare and innovation also would be subjects of interest to New Delhi.

Afghanistan will be an important issue for both countries, with U.S. officials promising continued American involvement as they plan a troop withdrawal by the end of next month, which poses regional stability concerns for Indian officials.

The visit by Mr. Blinken is the latest overture by the Biden administration to India and other countries in Asia as it implements a strategy of lining up allies to lock arms against intensifying Chinese influence across the region.

Mr. Blinken also will travel this week to Kuwait, a longtime focus of U.S. security attention, which U.S. officials hope to enlist in their effort to safeguard former interpreters and translators being evacuated from Afghanistan in the face of Taliban retaliation.

The U.S. diplomat’s trip to India is part of a flurry of outreach to Asia by top Biden administration officials. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is in the midst of an Asian trip with stops in Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam.

In a speech delivered in Singapore on Tuesday, Mr. Austin said he was committed to deepening U.S. ties in Asia and highlighted the U.S. role in delivering 40 million vaccines to the region to confront the pandemic. “This is an emergency, and that’s what friends do,” he said.

The State Department’s No. 2 official, Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman, visited China on Monday, sparring with senior officials there over the source of strains between Washington and Beijing. Ms. Sherman also stopped in Japan, South Korea and Mongolia.

“There is a concerted Indo-Pacific push by the Joe Biden administration to shore up all the U.S. alliances and partnerships, and India is a linchpin for that,” said Sreeram Chaulia, dean at O.P Jindal Global University’s School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. “Choosing specific vulnerable countries in the Indo-Pacific for joint security and infrastructure assistance could be on the cards.”

Mr. Jaishankar, India’s chief diplomat, also has clashed with Chinese officials recently. Following a visit with his Chinese counterpart in Tajikistan earlier this month, the Indian diplomat in Twitter messages addressed tensions over the disputed border between the two countries that erupted in deadly violence last year, warning against unilateral changes in the status quo.

For the U.S. and India, Mr. Blinken’s trip marks another step in building ties. Earlier this year, President Biden held a virtual summit with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia, which along with the U.S. are known as the Quad. The top U.S. and Indian diplomats met earlier this year on the sidelines of the Group of 7 foreign ministers’ meeting in the U.K. and during the Group of 20 summit in Italy. Mr. Jaishankar also has visited Washington.

Mr. Austin visited India earlier this year and Messrs. Austin and Blinken will host their Indian counterparts in Washington later this year, administration officials said.

The Indian government during talks with Mr. Blinken will emphasize “the need for sustained pressure on Pakistan on terror financing and terror havens,” according to the Indian official, and will bring up the situation in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are in the process of completing a withdrawal by the end of August.

Harsh V. Pant, head of strategic affairs at Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank, said Afghanistan will be a critical issue.

“In India, there is some consternation about Afghanistan and so the focus from India’s side will be to get some answers from Blinken on America’s future course of action,” he said.

Dean Thompson, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, said the conversations with Indian officials would focus on efforts to secure peace and foster economic development in Afghanistan.

U.S. and Indian officials also will discuss joint efforts to distribute Covid-19 vaccines around the world, and to address climate change by reducing emissions. In April, the two governments launched the U.S.-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership, designed to meet the goals of the Paris agreement on climate change.

According to the Indian government official, India will press in meetings for the gradual resumption of international travel, while maintaining health protocols, especially easing mobility of students, professionals and others. However, the Biden administration plans to keep most international travel restrictions in place, an official said Monday.

The U.S., India, Australia and Japan agreed earlier this year to produce and distribute one billion vaccine doses in 2022. Mr. Thompson said Friday they are “still working toward that goal at that time frame.”

Regarding India-Pakistan relations, Mr. Thompson said the U.S. administration thinks the two countries should resolve outstanding issues between themselves.

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