Blinken Visit: Talk in India, to China

Blinken’s inclusion of Geshe Dorji Damdul among Indian civil society people is intriguing
Blinken Visit: Talk in India, to China
" What was unusual in Blinken’s meeting with civil society members was the pointed messages it wished to convey: one, on present perceptions on the situation of rights and freedoms in India and two, more curiously, through the inclusion of a Tibetan—Geshe Dorji Damdul, Director of Tibet House in Delhi—in a group of Indians."Special arrangement

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who held meetings with the Indian leadership on July 28 in Delhi, began his day with an interaction with civil society leaders. It is not unusual for political leaders during their official visits to foreign countries to interact with business people, academics and scholars and members of civil societies; Indian leaders do so too. What was unusual in Blinken’s meeting with civil society members was the pointed messages it wished to convey: one, on present perceptions on the situation of rights and freedoms in India and two, more curiously, through the inclusion of a Tibetan—Geshe Dorji Damdul, Director of Tibet House in Delhi—in a group of Indians.

Prior to his arrival in India the US State Department made it known that Blinken would raise the issue of human rights in India. The Biden administration has been under pressure to do more on the issue of human rights in India because of perceptions in a section of the Democratic Party and US liberal circles that India’s constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms and civil liberties are under threat. Clearly, Blinken would therefore have wished to assuage the concerns of such domestic opinion. Apart from this the Biden administration has consistently signalled a desire to return to the traditional US position of emphasising human rights as part of the country’s foreign policy agenda.

Obviously, the US side made a careful choice of civil society members so that they ‘represented’ a cross-section of current Indian opinion on the direction in which the country is going. According to a media report those who met Blinken included persons from Sikh, Christian and Baha’i NGOs, a member of the Ramakrishna Mission, a constitutional lawyer and the Inter-faith Foundation founder Iftikar Ahmed. After meeting them Blinken tweeted “I was pleased to meet civil society leaders today. The US and India share a commitment to democratic values; this is part of the bedrock of our relationship and reflective of India’s pluralistic society and history of harmony”.

Following his talks with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar Blinken, in response to a question, said “Our shared values and democratic traditions were part of our conversation”. Blinken acknowledged that the US too was not perfect and had challenges too but this acceptance did not mask what he was conveying to his host. On his part Jaishankar told the media not to equate freedoms with non-governance or lack of governance. He also emphasised the ‘moral obligation to right historical wrongs’. Jaishankar’s formulations, as reported in the media, are awkward. As a seasoned diplomat and now turned senior minister he would be aware that both governance and the correction of historical wrongs in India have to be within the ambit of the constitution; and rights and liberties and freedoms are the soul of the Indian constitution.

Notwithstanding Blinken’s sermon the fact is that the primary objective of US foreign policy has always been the promotion of the country’s interests and not the protection of rights of the citizens of other countries. Indeed, the history of India-US relations itself bears this out. Both India and the US have always emphasised that their political systems are founded on common values. But these values did not foster common positions on global or regional issues. Indeed, the US viewed India negatively during a major part of the Cold War. India too was deeply suspicious of US policies and actions in South Asia.

It is only after the end of the Cold War that a serious process of reconciling the interests of the two countries began. This gathered pace after the Indian nuclear tests of 1998. The US overcame its anger at India making a huge dent in the global nuclear order it had promoted. Realising that the technology denial regimes were a major hindrance in improving bilateral ties the US started dismantling them. This process was facilitated by the India-US nuclear deal of 2008. The rise of China and its aggressive manifestations under President Xi Jinping is a source of anxiety to both India and the US. There is now a coincidence of Indian and American interests in meeting the challenge posed by China. However, ‘coincidence’ does not imply that Indian and US interests are identical in respect of China.

It is here that Blinken’s inclusion of Geshe Dorji Damdul among Indian civil society people becomes intriguing. This is especially so because he is reported to have separately met Ngodup Dongchung, Director of Dalai Lama’s Delhi office. If Blinken was meeting Dongchung separately he was sending an obvious signal to China from Indian soil for the Chinese are sensitive to such meetings. What was the need to compound this by including Damdul who would obviously have spoken not of human rights in India but on conditions in Tibet?

Generally, a visiting political leader takes care not to say or do anything which would embarrass their host with a third country. This convention is breached seldom and only deliberately if the message to a third country is so important that the irritation caused to the host can be disregarded. That seems to be the case here for India is careful not to cause unnecessary offence to China on the Dalai Lama matter. This is despite the firm support it has continued to give the Dalai Lama through the decades.

Blinken’s own personal and political background commits him to human rights but as Secretary of State whenever his country’s interests demand he will be compelled to push them in the background. That is the way the diplomatic game is played and other countries know this fact.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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