(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken kicked off his first official visit to India Wednesday, highlighting the two nations’ close ties but also noting the democracies were “works in progress” -- a guarded reference to the issue of discrimination against minorities in both countries.
Blinken is scheduled to meet his counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, where India’s border tensions with China, the growing security crisis in Afghanistan triggered by the impending final U.S. troop withdrawal and Covid-19 are likely to be high on the agenda.
“The Indian people and the American people believe in freedom, in equality of opportunity, in the rule of law,” Blinken said during a meeting with civil society leaders in the capital, New Delhi. He referred to the “rising global threats to democracy,” noting it was “vital that we, the world’s two leading democracies, continue to stand together in support of these ideals.”
Blinken’s trip comes as his government vows to challenge what it describes as China’s aggression and while countries across South and Southeast Asia battle a surge in Covid-19 amid sluggish vaccination roll-outs.
Ties between the U.S. and India have warmed in recent years as the two nations share converging interests over Beijing’s actions in the region, however there have been growing 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 Friday Blinken would raise those issues during his visit.
Since Modi came to power in 2014, hard liners in his Bharatiya Janata Party have become increasingly emboldened in promoting the dominance of Hindus, who form 80% of the population. A restrictive new 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 pressure on the media.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is also in Asia with the message that America was committed to engagement in the region, while stressing that the U.S. and its partners faced a common challenge in China.
In his speech in Singapore Tuesday, Austin described the discrimination experienced by some Asian Americans as “unacceptable,” but noted “we aren’t trying to hide our mistakes. When a democracy stumbles, everyone can see and hear it. It’s broadcast in loud and living color, not hushed up by the state.”
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