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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Blinken in India for talks on China, Israel

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will hold talks Friday in New Delhi seeking to bolster India as a regional counterweight to China and win backing for its position on Israel’s war with Hamas.

Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will join foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and defence minister Rajnath Singh for annual “two-plus-two” talks India has said will focus on “defence and security cooperation”.

Delhi is part of the Quad alliance alongside the United States, Australia and Japan, a grouping that positions itself as a bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.

Washington hopes a tighter defence relationship will help wean India off Russia, New Delhi’s primary military supplier.

“Our intention is to encourage more collaboration to produce world-class defence equipment to meet Indian defence needs and contribute to greater global security,” Donald Lu, the top US diplomat for South and Central Asia, said ahead of the trip.

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Blinken arrived in smog-choked New Delhi late Thursday from South Korea, the latest leg of a marathon trip that has included a G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in Japan — which sought to find common ground on the Gaza conflict — and a whirlwind tour of the Middle East.

India was swift to condemn Hamas, and shares with Washington its longstanding call for an independent Palestinian state.

“The Indian government was direct in its condemnation of the Hamas terrorist attack and has also joined a chorus of nations, including the United States, that have called for sustained humanitarian access to Gaza,” Lu said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he stood “in solidarity with Israel”, and last month India airlifted aid to Egypt for Palestinian civilians from the besieged Gaza Strip.

The conflict in Gaza poses a major challenge to hopes of a key trade and transport route linking Europe, the Middle East and India, unveiled during G20 talks in Delhi in September.

“With India, we share the goals of preventing this conflict from spreading, preserving stability in the Middle East, and advancing a two-state solution”, Lu added.

– ‘Free, open, prosperous’ –

India has a long-running border dispute with northern neighbour China, with a deadly Himalayan clash in 2020 sending diplomatic relations into a deep freeze. Their 3,500-kilometre (2,200-mile) shared frontier remains a long-running source of tension.

“We will be interested to hear how India’s discussions with China are going related to border issues,” Lu said.

“One of the many discussion points will be our cooperation with India to keep the Indo-Pacific free, open, prosperous, and secure,” he added.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will also be on the agenda, Lu said.

New Delhi has had to balance its traditional alliance with Russia — the provider of most of its arms imports, and now a source of cut-price oil — with growing ties to Washington.

President Joe Biden’s administration has prioritised relations with Delhi, seeing a like-minded partner faced with the rise of China, but Blinken’s trip could be made awkward by a bitter feud between India and another close US partner — Canada.

Relations between the two have plunged since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September publicly linked Indian intelligence to the killing of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, allegations Delhi has called “absurd”.

Nijjar, who advocated for a separate Sikh state carved out of India, was wanted by Indian authorities for alleged terrorism and conspiracy to commit murder.

“We have publicly and privately urged the Indian government to cooperate with Canada on the investigation into the allegations,” Lu said.

“We are hopeful that Canada’s investigation will proceed, and the perpetrators will be brought to justice”, Lu added.

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