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US top diplomat Antony Blinken to visit India, Kuwait next week

Published: Updated:

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to India next week, the State Department said on Friday, in the top US diplomat’s first visit to the world’s largest democracy and an important US ally in Asia.

Blinken will also visit Kuwait and meet senior officials there at the end of the July 26-29 trip.

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The United States sees India as an important partner in efforts to stand up to China’s increasingly assertive behavior. 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.

In New Delhi on Wednesday, Blinken will meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

Among the subjects on the agenda will be “Indo-Pacific engagement, shared regional security interests, shared democratic values, and addressing the climate crisis” as well as the response to the coronavirus pandemic, a statement said.

Blinken is likely to discuss plans for an in-person summit of the Quad group of countries -- Indian, Japan, Australia and the United States -- that is seen as a counter to China’s rising influence. The meeting later this year is expected to focus on ways to develop regional infrastructure in the face of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative.

The United States hosted a virtual summit of the Quad countries in March at which they agreed that Indian drugmaker Biological E would produce at least a billion coronavirus vaccine doses by the end of 2022, mainly for Southeast Asian and Pacific countries.

However, India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, was subsequently hit by a catastrophic wave of COVID-19 infections and halted vaccine exports amid intense criticism of Modi’s domestic vaccination efforts.

Washington sent raw materials for vaccines, medical equipment, and protective gear to India after the spike.

India expects to receive 3-4 million doses of US-made vaccines by August.

“(India) is such a critical country in the fight against COVID-19,” Blinken told MSNBC on Friday, explaining that India would eventually become a vital source of vaccines to the world.

“Of course, they’re focused understandably on their own internal challenges now, but when that production engine gets fully going and can distribute again to the rest of the world, that’s going to make a big difference.”

Last November, India, the United States, Japan, and Australia conducted their largest joint naval exercises in over a decade as part of efforts to balance China’s growing military and economic power in the region.

Rick Rossow, an India expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he expected Afghanistan’s future after the US troop pullout and Indian concerns about that to be on the agenda in New Delhi.

“Vaccine cooperation has proven much trickier than diplomats would like,” he added. “The US and India have both found the political need to prioritize domestic availability of vaccines over any international agreement. But today the US has a glut of doses; India needs doses; and other nations across the region hope to tap into this channel.”

Read more: Secretary of State Blinken says US and India united in tackling COVID-19