Blinken sets humble tone in Asia as US aims to rebuild ties

India's Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar (right) welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on July 28, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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Peter Martin and Archana Chaudhary Bloomberg News (TNS)

The latest swing of senior U.S. officials through Asia indicates the Biden administration is taking a humbler tone in the region than the former president, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noting that every democracy was a “work in progress.”

On his first official visit to India, 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’s language shows the difficult balancing act President Joe Biden faces when it comes to taking on China over values. It is seeking to rally friendly nations against an increasingly autocratic 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.

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The more self-effacing approach could help neutralize China’s efforts to deflect international criticism of its own human rights practices back at the U.S. For more than a year, top Chinese diplomats have quickly sought to pivot from denials that their government is carrying out genocide in Xinjiang to attacks on what they say is Western hypocrisy, citing everything from the murder of George Floyd to the Holocaust.

“The U.S. is struggling to find the right balance between a strong democracy vs autocracy message in Europe with something different in much of Asia, where talk of values is less well-received,” said James Crabtree, IISS–Asia executive director and author of “The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age.”

“Certainly in Asia even democratic U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea don’t much like talk of an alliance of democracies because they want to keep good ties with many of the region’s non-democratic states too.”

China challenge

His trip comes as the U.S. administration vows to challenge what it describes as China’s aggression and while countries across South and Southeast Asia battle a surge in COVID-19.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is also in Asia with the message that America is committed to engagement in the region, while stressing that the U.S. and its partners faced a common challenge in China.

Beijing was quick to respond to Blinken’s comments.

“Democracy is a common value of humanity. It not patented by any country,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press briefing Wednesday in Beijing. “It is not democratic at all to undermine others while portraying oneself as superior.”

Blinken met his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and is slated to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi later Wednesday. India’s border tensions with China, the growing security crisis in Afghanistan triggered by the impending final U.S. troop withdrawal and COVID-19 were high on the agenda.

Jaishankar pushed back against Beijing’s criticism of the grouping known as the Quad that includes the U.S., India, Japan and Australia. “People need to get over the idea that somehow other countries doing things is directed against them,” Jaishankar said in a joint press conference with Blinken. I think countries do things that are in their interest, for their good and the good of the world. And that is exactly what is the case with the Quad.”

Blinken also met briefly with a representative of Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, during the visit, U.S. representatives said in a statement.

Warming ties

Ties between the U.S. and India have warmed in recent years and that trend has continued under the Biden administration.

His meeting with civil society leaders “signaled to audiences back home that he wasn’t setting aside the values component, to Indians that democracy and pluralism were integral to the relationship, and to China with the inclusion of the head of an organization linked to the Dalai Lama,” said Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution.

Blinken also said the U.S. would provide $25 million to India for COVID-19 relief, in addition to $200 million it had earlier sent. India is just emerging from a brutal second wave of infections that crippled its health system and overwhelmed crematoriums and burial ground.

But the South Asian nation’s vaccination program has seen many stumbles and the country has so far fully vaccinated about 7% of its nearly 1.4 billion people, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

Minority concerns

Still, there have been concerns in Washington over the deteriorating human rights landscape in the South Asian nation. Dean Thompson, acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, said Blinken would raise those issues during his visit.

Since Modi came to power in 2014, his government has increasingly promoted the dominance of Hindus, who form 80% of the population. A citizenship law that’s seen to target the country’s 170 million Muslims, along with a deadly crackdown on protests against the move are two key pressure points, as well as intensifying government controls over the media.

While he gave no details about the specifics of his talks with Jaishankar on minority rights in India, Blinken told reporters in New Delhi, “We’ve seen the challenges that our own democracy has faced in the past and faces today.”

“The broader trend of India potentially becoming an illiberal democracy is potentially problematic for the Biden administration,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at RAND Corp think tank. “India under Modi has increasingly become a Hindu nationalist state that has not always treated minorities well,” which is something progressive Democratic Party factions “may push President Biden on in the future.”

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