With the announcement from the Biden administration that it will be formally ending combat operations in Iraq by the end of 2021, the United States has shifted it’s focus to combatting the COVID-19 virus in much of the world that hasn’t been vaccinated. With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, we are seeing the alarming encroachment of the Taliban in regions where they had been kept out of. But with the end of combat in the Middle East, a separate conflict in India [out of the many] could further complicate Blinken’s visit, even though the stated goal of the visit to work on Indo-Pacific alliance in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic as well as reasserting regional influence over China and to combat the COVID-19 and to form strategic relationships in the wider Asian region.
The United States hosted a virtual Quad summit in March at which the countries agreed Indian drugmaker Biological E Ltd would produce at least a billion coronavirus vaccine doses by the end of 2022, mainly for Southeast Asian and Pacific countries, which have seen COVID-19 surges and where Washington has been competing in vaccine diplomacy with China. read moreSimon Lewis and David Brunnstrom, Reuters
In attempting to strengthen these relationships with India and trying to find a solution to vaccinating the world, the United States could very quickly find itself in quicksand when it comes to the issues of human rights and social media censorship, as the Indian government has continued to crack down on human rights and violently depose of farmers -who have been protesting for a year now over the corporate handout of Indian farms to Ambani and Adani- and their allies.
Despite repeated meetings between lawmakers and Indian farmers, no conclusion has been reached as to abolishing the farm laws and preventing full on corporate takeover of farms that families have cultivated over generations.
Washington sees India as helping in U.S. efforts to stand up to China’s increasingly assertive behavior in Asia and beyond. Blinken’s trip will follow a visit by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to China and coincide with one to Southeast Asia by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.Reuters
While it’s clear that the United States is starting to engage with partners that have been neglected by the Trump Administration, and one that America is seeking to become ‘leader of the free world’ again, it is clear that America’s challenges have three fronts:
- The first challenge that America would face if Secretary Blinken were to engage on the issue of the Farmers, are the right-wing Modi supporters in the United States, who have otherwise supported the Biden Administration and would be incensed at this attempted overture to interfere in what India has been deeming ‘an internal affair’ but with a global reach of the diaspora.
- The second challenge the Biden Administration has the possibility of facing is the fact that even though there are an estimated 500,000 Sikh Americans in the United States, their voices have not been adequately respected when it comes to fighting the farm laws. When Democrats pledge to combat Asian hate, they should also note that the different Asian groups have varied issues that aren’t being addressed & continue to ostracize and other otherwise exclude those who need our leaders to speak up for us. Representative Judy Chu has written to the Indian Ambassador to the United States about the farmers protest, with limited response from India to take any action on it.
- The third challenge that can hinder the Biden Administration when it comes to this upcoming trip is the State Department noting back in February, that the Indian government had the support of the Biden Administration in attempting to reform the sector.
- Caught between the United States and India, social media giants, Facebook and Twitter don’t seem to getting much help from the Biden Administration to empower speech that the Indian government is not receptive to, mainly critiques of the hindutva government and how India is quickly slipping into an authoritarian state.
Secretary Blinken was already not committing to raise the issue earlier this year when urged by Senate Majority Leader Schumer and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez:
After becoming the Secretary of State, Blinken has spoken with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar multiple times. The readouts of the phone calls do not indicate that Blinken raised this issue, under pressure from his party men, with Jaishankar. The Biden administration has insisted that the two countries share democratic values.
Schumer and Menendez said the months-long demonstrations have been met with orders from the central government and local authorities to shut off internet access in protest areas, cut off water and electricity supplies for the tens of thousands living in protest camps, and impede the work of journalists reporting on the protests.Indian Express, March 19th, 2021
While this visit of Secretary Blinken to India is much-needed to stabilize relationships and combat COVID-19, it also needs to be one where the violence against Muslims in India, the disenfranchisement of farmers, the violence against Dalits and so many more issues need to addressed and tackled. The United States needs a plan to fight back against human rights violations.
If America is going to ‘Build Back Better’ it needs to applicable to the the countries that continue to violate human rights and prevent people from being able to address their grievances. Countries need to be held accountable for their violence against marginalized and vulnerable people. In a highly globalized world, the impact of expensive food will be dangerously felt by all if farms continue to be handed over the mega rich and our democratic institutions are sold off for a quick buck.
India’s Defense Potential
Australia, India, Japan and the United States share a special Quadrilateral consultation -also known as the Quad- and it is an alliance that permits democratic countries to be able to strategize about the common ways these countries can combat the major challenges of our day – climate change, COVID-19 vaccination, defense alliances and infrastructure among many other priorities. In an article written by Dhruva Jaishankar and Tanvi Madan for Foreign Affairs magazine, they make an interesting distinction about the potential of the Quad. They note that:
The logic behind such an effort is clear. A more assertive China is extending its influence across the Indo-Pacific and around the world. Existing alliances and institutions aren’t up to the task of addressing the consequences, and domestic politics across the region mean that an “Asian NATO” is off the table. That’s where the Quad comes in: as its members increasingly find themselves at loggerheads with Beijing, the group has become a test case for a new kind of flexible multilateral partnership designed to shape the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, offer alternatives, and alter China’s calculations. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has staked its regional strategy on this approach.Foreign Affairs Magazine
When terming this as the ‘Asian NATO’ it is clear that the United States is attempting to shore up support among these nations to counter China and make a modern day case for keeping it’s influence in across Asia to combat China.
However, being a Quad member means that the United States will be less inclined to seek assurances from the Modi government that they will protect free speech, assembly and the right of media organizations to report as they will. A walk back in history:
India still enjoys broad bipartisan support in the United States—a 2020 Chicago Council survey showed similarly positive views among Democrats and Republicans of U.S. ties with India—but that support is built on the notion that the world’s oldest democracy and its largest democracy have an inherent affinity, a connection of “natural allies,” to quote former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. However, mounting concern over the Modi government’s rights record could dampen those high levels of support. India has already attracted sharp U.S. criticism for its policies in Kashmir and its new citizenship law. And these events have surfaced partisan differences: a 2019 resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives to urge the Indian government to protect rights and religious freedoms garnered more than 60 cosponsors, almost entirely Democrats. Another outcome of India’s drift away from democracy could be a partisan split in U.S. support for the bilateral relationship—something that could eventually imperil it.
It would be very interesting to see where India-United States relations go under this new administration and what comes from this dialogue, where the stakes are high and how the pandemic will either empower countries to work with one another or it will prevent them due to their own unique interests.
One thing is for sure, the longer the United States takes a hands off approach from discussing the issues that advocates in the diaspora want discussed, the electoral ramifications of that here, for Democrats, could be high.
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