NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks Friday in New Delhi seeking to bolster India as a regional counterweight to China and win backing for its position on Israel’s war with Hamas.
Blinken and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin joined foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and defence minister Rajnath Singh for annual “two-plus-two” talks, which India said would focus on “defence and security cooperation”.
“In the face of urgent global challenges, it’s more important than ever that the world’s two largest democracies exchange views, find common goals, and deliver for our people,” Austin said during opening remarks.
“We’ve made impressive gains in building our major defence partnership over the past year and that will help us contribute even more together to the cause of peace and stability,” Austin added, saying their cooperation “stretches from the sea to space”.
India is part of the Quad alliance alongside the United States, Australia and Japan, a grouping that positions itself as a bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.
“We are promoting a free and open, prosperous, secure and resilient Indo-Pacific,” Blinken said, highlighting the sharing of maritime satellite data that helped to “combat illegal fishing, piracy, and drug trafficking”.
His counterpart Jaishankar spoke of “developing our strategic partnership” and praised a “new chapter in our relationship” following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington in June, and US President Joe Biden’s trip to Delhi for G20 talks in September.
Washington also hopes a tighter defence relationship will help wean India off Russia, Delhi’s primary military supplier.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will also be on the agenda, US officials said.
Blinken’s visit to India is the last stop in a marathon trip that has included South Korea, a G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in Japan – which sought to find common ground on the Gaza conflict – and a whirlwind tour of the Middle East.
India, which shares with Washington its long-standing call for an independent Palestinian state, was swift to condemn Hamas and airlifted aid to Egypt for Palestinian civilians from the besieged Gaza Strip.
The conflict in Gaza poses a major challenge to hopes of a key trade and transport route linking Europe, the Middle East and India, unveiled during the G20 talks in September.
“With India, we share the goals of preventing this conflict from spreading, preserving stability in the Middle East, and advancing a two-state solution”, said Donald Lu, the top US diplomat for South and Central Asia.
India has a long-running border dispute with northern neighbour China, with a deadly Himalayan clash in 2020 sending diplomatic relations into a deep freeze. Their 3,500-kilometre (2,200-mile) shared frontier remains a long-running source of tension.
“We will be interested to hear how India’s discussions with China are going related to border issues,” Lu said ahead of the trip.
Biden’s administration has prioritised relations with Delhi, seeing a like-minded partner faced with the rise of China, but Blinken’s trip could be made awkward by a bitter feud between India and another close US partner – Canada.
Relations between the two have plunged since Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September publicly linked Indian intelligence to the killing of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, allegations Delhi has called “absurd”.