External affairs minister S Jaishankar. (File photo)
External affairs minister S Jaishankar. (File photo)

Jaishankar in US: Talks to cover Covid, bilateral ties

External affairs minister S Jaishankar will be the first Indian cabinet member to hold in-person meetings with senior members of the Biden administration in the United States during his five-day visit that will bring him to Washington DC on Wednesday
By Yashwant Raj
UPDATED ON MAY 24, 2021 10:19 AM IST

External affairs minister S Jaishankar will be the first Indian cabinet member to hold in-person meetings with senior members of the Biden administration in the United States during his five-day visit that will bring him to Washington DC on Wednesday, with the possibility, somewhat remote at this time, of a meeting with the American president.

Talks are expected to cover Covid-19, a subject uppermost on everyone’s mind and related healthcare issues, but also an entire of issues from international to regional such as Afghanistan, economic and strategic reflecting the ever-expanding breadth of the bilateral relationship and related discussions.

Jaishankar is scheduled to meet UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in New York City on Tuesday, which will also be the first in-person meeting for the two leaders since India began a two-year non-permanent term on the UN Security Council in January — its eighth such stint thus far.

The external affairs minister will be in New York City Monday and Tuesday and then head for Washington DC on Wednesday for another two days, with his itinerary packed with meetings with cabinet ministers, including his counterpart Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

They have known each other for a long time and share a close and easy relationship, going back to their previous avatars as India’s foreign secretary and deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration respectively. Blinken had also visited India during Jaishankar’s tenure as foreign secretary.

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Jaishankar is also expected to meet National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, another old acquaintance. But there was no word yet about his meetings with other cabinet members, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the first, and only, Biden cabinet member to visit India so far, in March, when he had also met Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Visiting foreign ministers don’t always get a meeting with the American president. And in these times of social restrictions, though it’s being rapidly wound down in the White House because of rising vaccinations and dipping case, Americans have been even less willing to break the protocol.

Australian foreign minister Marise Payne was in Washington DC in March. She met Blinken and Sullivan and others but, did not get a meeting with President Biden. And Australia has been a treaty ally of the US since 1951 and a member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance with the US, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada.

Jaishankar and defence minister Rajnath Singh became the first Indian ministers to meet an American president in 15 years when they had a “courtesy call” with then President Donald Trump in 2019, after wrapping up their 2+2 ministerial dialogue meetings with their then counterparts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

The two before them were former cabinet members of the Vajpayee government — home minister LK Advani and foreign minister Yashwant Sinha. Advani got a “drop by” meeting with President George W Bush in 2003 when he was in a meeting with then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Sinha got an Oval Office meeting the year after, in 2004.

Jaishankar’s DC itinerary is still evolving. But, as stated in the announcement of his visit by the external affairs ministry, a major part will be meeting with the business community. He will meet representatives and members of the US-India Business Council (USIBC), an arm of the powerful US chamber of commerce, and the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), a competing group backed by most major companies invested in India.

It is also understood that Jaishankar will meet some members of US congress at a dinner hosted by Indian ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu. This will be a key part of the visit as well because of the overwhelming bipartisan support ties with India in US congress.

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