‘India is lucky to have bipartisan support within American policy circles. Biden has always been a strong supporter of close India-US relations. Trump, if re-elected, will most likely continue his existing policies, which means that while strategic ties will deepen, India will face pressure on the trade front.’
Joe Biden is coming to the White House!
That’s not me saying, but the recent polls and surveys buzzing loud and clear, giving the Democratic presidential nominee a clear edge and a double digit lead over his “fierce and tough opponent, President Donald Trump”.
The US Presidential election may be showing a tilt towards Biden since the first debate in Cleveland and Trump testing Covid positive according to the polls, but the contest is getting intense and threatening to go any side, even as Trump is all out in the middle of his core supporters with his red tie and his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”.
We have to see who will get the job to make America great again on 3 November, but as typical to any administration, the bureaucracy and the foreign affairs get the first whiff and hence, the uneasiness and new tone in policies start sending signals. Going by the buzz of a strong Biden wave, diplomacy experts in Washington DC are anxiously looking ahead and trying to find the answer to the key strategic questions haunting many, including New Delhi: Will Joe Biden be able to balance his “love for China” with “US’ strategic compulsions with India”?
A few recent headlines in the global media are triggering this speculation. Max Baucus, a former US ambassador to China told CNBC, “When it comes to China, I think you’ll see a bit of a reset…You will see a President who will engage in quiet diplomacy.” There are reports saying Biden will not engage in “Twitter diplomacy” against China as President Trump has done, while a South China Morning Post report even hinted that China is “eagerly awaiting Biden’s Presidency to help its economy recover”.
Although many Indian Americans are upbeat about the Biden-Harris combination taking Indo-US strategic ties to new heights, New Delhi is cautious, yet ready to work with the next President in the White House to make it business as usual. But the larger questions remain: Will India take precedence in US foreign policy over China and Pakistan? Does India need to worry at all? Diplomacy experts are cautious though in their forecast, but signal “no need for New Delhi to panic, given India’s strong friendship narrative building on the Capitol Hill”.
Professor Walter Andersen, a South Asia expert in Johns Hopkins University, says: “The tweaking of the US relations to China and Pakistan, if Joe Biden wins, also depends on whether the Republicans keep the Senate and from all accounts I see that is a real possibility. But more if not, there is a fundamentally negative view of Chinese foreign policy both among Republicans and Democrats and the US population generally. Trump’s commitment to open sea lanes in the South and East China Seas and the build-up of US military potential to reduce chances of a Chinese challenge to US interests are not likely to change either.”
Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the South Asia Program in Woodrow Wilson Center agrees: “Trump and Biden may not agree on much, but one of their few areas of convergence is South Asia policy. They both favour strengthening partnership with India. They both favour maintaining a workable, albeit undefined, relationship with Pakistan. And they both see South Asia through the lens of the US-China rivalry. Given Pakistan’s close ties to Beijing, this suggests that Islamabad could be perceived as hindering more than helping US goals in South Asia, no matter who wins the election.”
Aparna Pande, an expert on India and South Asia and Director in Hudson Institute says: “The US establishment no longer views the rise of China as ‘peaceful’. Instead, China is a peer competitor, akin to what the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. So irrespective of who wins, this view of China will not change. Every President will bring in his views on issues, but former Vice President Biden and his team have made it clear that they see China as a rival and competitor. Will President Trump continue his current policy towards China will need to be seen.”
Pande, however, says, India will be facing the twin sides of diplomacy with the new President. “India is lucky to be one of those countries that still have bipartisan support within American policy circles. Biden has always been a strong supporter of close India-US relations. His earlier administrations had championed these ties. Trump, if re-elected, will most likely continue his existing policies, which means that while strategic ties will deepen, India will face pressure on the trade front.”
To this, Kugelman adds, “If Trump is re-elected, the rivalry with China would intensify, though he may well dial down the angry, anti-China rhetoric (in the context of China stealing US jobs and causing the pandemic), as that type of rhetoric is politically driven in an election year. With a President Biden, the rivalry would continue as well, though I think we’d see him take a softer diplomatic approach than Trump, with efforts to build a broader global consensus to play the balancing game against China.”
But Kugelman quickly added, “Make no mistake: Biden has made quite clear that the Chinese-led economic model is not a good thing and works against US interests. It would be a folly to think that Biden would pitch himself as China’s new best economic friend. Biden will be in no rush to reconcile with China. This isn’t to say that the relationship won’t improve—the absence of Trump’s angry rhetoric in of itself could help bilateral relations—but we shouldn’t overstate this idea of a Biden administration looking to China as a key partner. I haven’t heard Biden say anything that suggests he’s prepared for a reset in US-China relations.”
But South Asia will remain important, irrespective of who wins the election, says Pande, adding, “Not only India and Pakistan but Afghanistan is also going to be a key factor in the coming months. India is the strategic ally of choice and this decision was made by the US two decades ago. Four successive American Presidents—Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump have built the foundations over the last 20 years and that will not change this November.”
On US relations with Pakistan, Professor Andersen feels that US policy will depend significantly on how Pakistan seeks to take advantage of Chinese assertiveness against India and how much Pakistan seeks to constrain the activities of anti-Indian militant groups that operate from Pakistan. “The US reliance on Pakistan to help out on Afghanistan is also much less significant as the US continues to reduce its overseas military presence,” says Andersen.
Pande added, “With respect to Pakistan, there has been a sea change over the last few years, going back to the second half of the Obama administration and continued in the Trump era. While the US maintains a relationship with Pakistan, needs its support with respect to Afghanistan, and is concerned about terrorism and nuclear weapons, there is no deep strategic bond with Pakistan.”
Kugelman puts the US’ Pakistan policy in broader perspective. “Biden’s relations with Pakistan would be dependent on how things are playing out in Afghanistan. So long as there is a peace process going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains engaged, Biden would want to ensure ample engagement with Islamabad. What remains more unclear—and this would be the case under Trump 2.0 as well—is what happens to the US relationship with Pakistan after the US military footprint has receded or disappeared in Afghanistan. Here, the US-China rivalry looms large. It will be tough for Biden-or Trump-to justify deepening its relationship with Pakistan—not just because of New Delhi’s opposition to it, but also because Islamabad is deeply allied with America’s biggest rival. This isn’t to say it won’t happen, but it will be a tall order,” he said.
It is hoped that Biden will continue what the Trump administration has done in building the Quad, equipping India with tactical support (arms and intel support, mainly) that it needs in its here-for-the-long-haul spat with China, feels Kugelman. India’s ambitions in the Pacific region as well as within Asia has a “natural strategic advantage”, says Pande. “The US security and policy establishment views China as a peer competitor, and that will remain irrespective of who wins the elections in November. The American military knows who its rival is in Asia and beyond and that will not change in November. The US has been supportive of India in the seven-month long standoff against China. Many American officials have spoken about Chinese aggression including against India, and the US has provided military and intelligence support. This will not change if a Biden administration comes to power in November,” says Pande.
Kugelman added: “My sense is that given the primacy accorded to India in US foreign policy considerations, and on bipartisan levels, about South Asia, everything will flow from the US relationship with New Delhi. A Biden South Asia policy would also be shaped by the ever-present US-China rivalry. I would expect the relationship with India to be Biden’s top policy priority in South Asia. The US broadly looks to India as a key strategic bet in South Asia to help balance out Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific.”
Andersen sums up the point well: “I cannot imagine a Biden administration seeking to engage in another military build-up there. In fact, there is likely to be a growing four-way competition for influence there between China, Iran, Russia and Pakistan. The Afghan government (and the US and India) would want all of these powers to stay out of political interference. The more they do intervene, the greater the chances of enhanced US-India security cooperation, with Japan and Australia basically allied with the US, whoever is the next President.”
It seems like that remains the core of “possible” Biden-era foreign policy in the White House. India just needs to watch closely and play the cards perfectly.