Lecturing India will be seen as mere rhetoric.
There is a good chance that when you read this, the US elections may still have not been officially called, but as things stand now, Joe Biden is all set to be the next American President. Trump would be only the fourth US President since 1906 not to have won a second term (after Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush). As Democrat Joe Biden wades through a divided nation and polity, many in India are wondering how a “liberal” US administration will view the present India-China tensions and the internal administrative decisions taken by the Narendra Modi government in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Both Pakistan and China were caught off-guard by India’s decision to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories and abrogate Article 370, which gave special status to the state. China has, on three separate occasions, tried to raise these issues at the UNSC—partly because of its support to Pakistan’s incessant war mongering on Kashmir and partly because it felt impacted by Ladakh’s change of administrative status. The Trump administration—which made an offer of mediation between India and Pakistan—had accepted New Delhi’s position on J&K’s administrative changes and its stated position of no third-party mediation.
While these decisions are solely the prerogative of the Indian government, a Democratic regime in Washington may take a sharper view on Kashmir. A “progressive” Biden administration may need to prove its liberal credentials to its home constituency and may raise the issue of Kashmir—with a sharper tone. After all, Senator Kamala Harris has done so on in the past and in all probability will do so again. India must be prepared for this rhetoric.
But Biden’s real test as a liberal and a progressive leader of the free world will be his ability to take on China. With the presidential campaign raising several allegations about his son Hunter Biden’s alleged dealings in China, there will be pressure on Biden to act. This, even as China has increased its aggression and hegemonic tendencies after facing global backlash for its failure to control a pandemic that it should have.
Biden’s actions against China have to be on three fronts—military, trade and human rights violations. On the issue of tackling China’s economic heft as the world’s second largest economy, there is expectation that the new regime may find ways to collaborate with it. Biden has stated that there will be a reversal of some trade policies of the Trump administration and the trade war may end. While this will be good news for Chinese exporters, it remains to be seen how it benefits America. On the issue of military deterrence, it is likely that there will be no reversal on the progress made by the Quad. There seems to be bipartisan consensus on building greater deterrence against a rising and aggressive China and Quad plays a pivotal role in this deterrence.
The new administration will also have to penalise China for its brutal suppression of Uyghur Muslims and Hong Kong dissidents. While the Trump administration stripped Hong Kong of its special status, this has clearly not been enough to deter Beijing from its continued crackdown on dissenters. What more will Biden do? If he fails to speak up, will he continue to be a beacon of liberal, progressive and democratic values? Likewise, it will be incumbent on Biden to stop the persecution of Uyghur Muslims or accept his administration’s failure to deal with an authoritarian regime which has complete disregard for human rights. Will he try to reform the United Nations at least to ensure Beijing does not sit on UNHRC committees making a mockery of the institution and eroding its significance? Again, Biden’s liberal credentials will be put to test.
If Biden is not able to stop the mass human rights violations in China, it will expose not just his inability to do so but also open the door for criticism on grounds that he chooses not to do so.
This rhetoric—which will spill over to CAA and NRC—is on expected lines and New Delhi can plan for this via deft diplomacy. It needs to start a global action plan against Beijing’s large scale human rights violations and ensure that world powers join in. New Delhi needs to reach out to both Asian and European world leaders to ensure a narrative builds up, forcing Biden to act. There is no EU-wide consensus on China’s pathetic track record on human rights due to their deep economic dependence on Beijing; but there is agreement amongst the major European powers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should build on his rapport with his British, French and German counterparts to start this campaign.
The post 2020 world order is seeing a more isolated China. India needs to take the lead to make it accountable for its acts of gross injustice. Mr Biden will not be able to get away by lecturing a thriving and robust democracy. The real challenge will be to make Xi Jinping accountable for his actions against his fellow countrymen.