Blinken’s India visit puts human rights, China on table

NEW DELHI (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in India on Tuesday to discuss strengthening Indo-Pacific engagement, seen as a counter to China, as well as New Delhi’s recent human rights record and other issues.

Blinken’s visit includes meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and senior officials on Wednesday, and comes just days after his No. 2 diplomat, Wendy Sherman, was in China for face-to-face talks.

Washington has long viewed India as a key partner in efforts to blunt increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region. The U.S. and India are part of the Quad — a group that also includes Japan and Australia — allies in the region helping deal with China’s growing economic and military strength.

While the Biden administration has indicated it wants a more civil relationship with Beijing, its shown no sign of softening the Trump administration’s confrontational measures on trade, technology and human rights.

The rights record of India, the world’s biggest democracy, will also be on the agenda, according to comments last week from Dean Thompson, acting assistant secretary for South and Central Asia.

Opponents of Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist party have accused it of squashing dissent and introducing policies aimed at refashioning a multifaith democracy into a Hindu nation that discriminates against Muslims and other minorities.

Modi has also been accused of trying to silence voices critical of his administration’s handling of the massive pandemic wave that tore through the country in April and May.

India routinely denies criticism of its human rights record and has rejected criticism by foreign governments and rights groups that say civil liberties have shrunk in the country.

Thompson said Blinken also will seek India’s support in stabilizing Afghanistan after the U.S. military withdrawal is completed at the end of August.

Blinken is set to travel to Kuwait on Thursday.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs last week said Blinken’s visit “is an opportunity to continue the high-level bilateral dialogue and bolster the India-U.S. global strategic partnership.”

Over the last few years, the ties between the two countries have improved, particularly in terms of their shared interests regarding a rising China. They have steadily ramped up their military relationship and signed a string of defense deals and deepened military cooperation.

In March, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met top Indian officials and Modi. Both sides agreed to deepen defense cooperation, intelligence sharing and logistics. His visit was followed by climate envoy John Kerry.

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