Both Biden and Xi Jinping may agree that their short-term interests are best served by working together and not by locking horns.
The 2020 POTUS election grabbed unprecedented international attention for several reasons. The most important probably was that after practically 30 years, after Bush Sr, the sitting President faced a serious possibility of losing the election for a second term.
For US nationals, the election represented the contest between the America-first policy trumpeted by Trump espousing unilateralism, isolationism, extreme nationalism, anti-immigration policies on the one hand, and multilateralism, liberalism, world trade and global structures and open immigration policies on the other.
For international observers, it was a contest between an isolationist US and a US working with global structures. More importantly, the election would decide the future track of the US approach to China, which most in the international community see as a challenger to the world order and disruption to the now established security architecture. In short, would the US try to work with China and bring it within the western security framework or would the China challenge further exacerbate?
The almost obsessive media interest in India in the US POTUS elections was also unprecedented and made it seem almost like a national event of great importance. Though disproportionate, it was indicative of the importance of the elections for Indian strategic planning. The public attention was also a clear reflection of the almost meteoric rise in the centrality of relations with the US in Indian foreign policy over the last two decades since the signing of the bilateral nuclear deal during Bush’s presidency.
It is amusing and interesting to observe that while the majority of world leaders, with the exception of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, have accepted the US electoral verdict and congratulated Biden and Kamala Harris on the Democratic victory, the outcome is far from in conclusion in the US itself. President Donald Trump, who had already declared his sacred intention of not conceding victory to Biden in the event of losing the vote, now appears firmly on track to challenge the elections legally. His Republican colleagues appear to be with him on this self-destructive path. The head of GSA, Emily Murphy has refused to sign the election results, which is necessary to declare Biden a winner and permit his transition team access to the office space, documents and top secret information, which would be necessary for Biden to select the incoming team and prepare the executive agenda. It is clear that the path ahead is going to be legally challenging and Trump will do everything in his power to disrupt the transition. Experts, however, are clear that he will not be able to stop Biden from becoming the next President. In the event, we must look at possible evolutions in India-US strategic embrace in the days to come.
Biden is a well-established foreign policy expert who worked closely as part of Barack Obama’s team as Vice President in the further development of relations with India. Earlier as a Senator, he was instrumental in getting legislative approval for the Indo US nuclear deal. His approach to relations with India is perhaps best articulated in his statement during his vice-presidential visit to India in 2013. He said, “There is no contradiction between strategic autonomy and strategic partnership. Global powers are capable of both.”
Further, the strategic relations between the two “global powers” are now on firm ground with the signing of several defence agreements such as LEMOA, COMCASA, BECA and more than 60 joint consultation mechanisms working actively. Transfer of sensitive technology, though not yet fully resolved, does not generate controversy anymore. It needs to be recalled that the concept of Indo Pacific as the framework for strategic relations with India was proposed by Obama when Biden was the Vice President. He is most likely to continue his support to Quad as a security response to China in the western pacific and Indian Ocean.
Biden as a Democrat and Kamala Harris with her immigrant background, albeit of Indian ancestry, however, are strong advocates of liberal values and minority rights. They, while remaining admirers of the democratic culture and political structures of India, are quite likely to be critical of decisions such as CAA, abrogation of Article 370 etc. The trick would be to ensure that their beliefs do not get articulated as criticisms of India and become an impediment to further growth of bilateral relations. Our diplomats have shown their mettle in the past and capacity to manage and marginalise such negativities when they are given sufficient freedom to exercise their creative ingenuity.
Biden should also be more accommodative of Indian concerns on immigration and trade issues. Trump has been transactional and unpredictable, and has not hesitated to announce withdrawal of trade concessions to India in response to restrictions on Indian imports of Harley Davidson motorcycles! Biden is likely to take a much broader and policy-based approach on such issues which would evidently favour India.
The dragon in the china shop is China and its lapdog Pakistan. Pakistan’s value to the US is now limited to Afghanistan. Any review in US decisions on the peace process with Taliban and withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would likely diminish that dependence on Pakistan. One consequence of that would be an even firmer hold of China over Pakistan. That will, however, make only marginal difference to India’s security calculus.
There appears to be public consensus in the US on treating China as an adversary to its strategic sensitivities, detrimental to its economic interests, responsible for the global corona pandemic, opaque to international opinion and uncaring of international peace and security in its single-minded pursuit for world domination. Xi Jinping is now widely perceived among US policymakers from both parties as leading a mercenary China to disrupt the present world order led by the US and establish Chinese hegemony, preferably during his own helmsmanship. He is seen as a threat to US security interests and therefore India can hope to continue to look forward to US support in the challenge it poses to China, both across the continental borders and in maritime areas. Military support across the borders should, however, never be India’s expectation, now or in the future.
What could change? Trump turned viscerally against China during the last year of his presidency for various reasons encompassing trade and security and had begun to see the predatory nature of China as a threat to US and world interests. His growing focus on the Indo Pacific and Quad are partly explained by this vision. Conversely, it should not come as a shock if this focus dissipates as rapidly as it came, if that vision of China changed after the election.
Biden, on the other hand, is a seasoned diplomat and his responses are going to be measured and grounded in long term thinking.
It is possible, barely as it may be, that instead of trying to isolate China, Biden would work on China accepting, even if as a tactical measure, the existing order and work as part of the system rather than challenge it. And what if China were to tactically play along and work to preserve the existing order, even if temporarily? Both Biden and Xi Jinping may agree that their short-term interests are best served by working together and not by locking horns. These are tempting thoughts.
Where would that leave India? Many would consider US-China peace as antagonistic to Indian interests. However, considering that Biden looks at India as a global power with strategic partnership and strongly entrenched interests, could calmer relations between China and the US have a soothing effect on a confrontation with India? There is a theory that Chinese actions in Galwan may have been prompted by US animosity towards China, coupled with growing India-US proximity, and thus the Chinese thrust on showing India its true place! Could the reverse be equally true? Biden’s approach of reconciliation with Xi Jinping could reduce the latter’s animosity towards India.
I am optimistic. Future will tell.
A veteran officer with 35 years in India’s diplomatic service, Suresh K. Goel retired in 2013 as Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs and Director General of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations.