‘By holding the first-ever Quad Summit in March, Biden has built on the Trump team’s efforts to revive the Quad dialogue among the US, India, Australia, and Japan.’
The coronavirus pandemic has brought to light the stronger need and urge to strengthen India-US strategic relations. In fact, its worsening impact on India’s economy and public health in the last 60 days has tested the friendship of the two democracies even strongly and the two governments got thicker than ever as friends. Also strengthening the diplomatic relations is the common challenge—China and its aggressive agenda in the Indo-Pacific region. The reorganising of the Quad, and the strategic urgency clearly demonstrate the need for a stronger US-India cooperation. “It is in the US interest for India to remain the dominant power in the Indian Ocean region and to continue to make progress with its military modernization,” says Lisa Curtis, Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Curtis spoke to The Sunday Guardian exclusively on India-US affairs, the Biden administration’s handling of China, Quad and its new regional security relevance to the growing significance of India in the US foreign policy. Excerpts:
Q: Has President Biden shifted from President Trump’s approach in dealing with China?
A: The Biden administration has so far approached the China challenge same as the Trump administration. In the first four months of the Biden administration, the US has sanctioned Chinese officials over human rights concerns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong; agreed with the Trump administration that the human rights abuses against the Uyghurs constitutes genocide; kept in place tariffs on Chinese goods and sanctions on Chinese companies; lifted restrictions on diplomatic engagement with Taiwanese officials; and carried out naval drills in the South China Sea.
The Biden administration has also been firm with China that the US supports the status quo in Taiwan and has criticised Beijing for provocative military actions in the Taiwan Strait. With President Biden’s announcement on Wednesday that US intelligence agencies will redouble their investigations into the origins of the coronavirus, he is demonstrating that his administration will do what it takes to get to the bottom of the issue, despite Chinese objections. Any concerns that he might reverse course on Trump’s tough approach to China have largely been laid to rest.
The Biden team is putting more emphasis on working with allies and partners to cope with the China challenge. By holding the first-ever Quad Summit in March, Biden has built on the Trump team’s efforts to revive the Quad dialogue among the US, India, Australia, and Japan. The Quad has begun to take shape and define its purpose: preserve the open, free, transparent, and rules-based order that facilitates trade, economic and political development in the Indo-Pacific.
Moreover, the Biden administration recognizes that competition with China is the most pressing national security challenge, but is also exploring whether there is potential to cooperate on issues like climate change or non-proliferation.
Q: In the post-Covid strategic order of Asia, what is your assessment of emerging US-India strategic ties serving in terms of assuring security in South Asia?
A: The US-India strategic relationship will take on greater importance in the post-Covid world. The pandemic has reinforced the need for like-minded nations to work together to protect global health, economic prosperity, and free and open societies. There is global frustration about the lack of transparency from China on the origins of the coronavirus. In addition, China’s aggressive political and military moves across the region, including along the disputed India-China border, following the outbreak of the pandemic, has demonstrated the need for greater cooperation between the US and India to deter conflict and maintain regional peace. It is in the US interest for India to remain the dominant power in the Indian Ocean region and to continue to make progress with its military modernization.
The establishment of the 2+2 engagement format during the Trump administration contributed significantly to strengthening relations and will likely continue to do so during the Biden administration. President Biden was a strong supporter of the US-India strategic relationship as Senator and Vice President and there is every reason to believe his administration will invest in the partnership and sustain the progress that was made during the Trump years. We are also likely to see greater India-US cooperation at the UN, given India’s current membership on the UNSC. There is an opportunity for the US and India to collaborate at the UN on building coalitions and ensuring Chinese growing influence within the organization is kept in check.
Q: How do you see the recent high-level India-US defence leaders’ meeting in the context of security partnership potential?
A: General Lloyd Austin’s early visit to India sends a positive signal that the US considers India one of its most important defence partners. The high-level follows a period of serious border tensions between Beijing and New Delhi. The US provided both moral and material support to India in the form of increased information and intelligence sharing and by expediting supply of critical military equipment and gear. The US leased two MQ-9 armed predators that were delivered to India last summer and expedited delivery of cold weather gear to support the deployment of the Indian military along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) through the winter. The US demonstrated it was a reliable partner on which India could count in its times of crisis, and this goodwill will likely carry over into the Biden administration.
Q: In wake of Chinese aggression over the last few years, many experts see Quad gradually hurtling towards a military partnership. Your thoughts?
A: While the logic of the Quad has become even more compelling in light of recent Chinese aggressive behaviour in the South and East China Seas, Taiwan Strait, and along the Line of Actual Control, China’s fears that the Quad will become an Asian NATO are overblown. It does not appear that defence matters were discussed in any detail during the first-ever Quad summit held in March. India, in particular, takes note of Chinese sensitivities toward the idea of Quad military activities. Indian leaders long-resisted inviting Australia to its annual Malabar naval exercise in part because they recognized it would raise Chinese hackles. However, in light of China’s 2020 border aggression, New Delhi may have felt it had little to lose in including Australia this time around. For its part, the US will leave the door open for military cooperation among the Quad countries to check Chinese hegemony and deter conflict.
Q: CNAS has a fresh approach to global issues, particularly a stronger thrust on India and on South Asian strategic affairs. Your thoughts?
A: Given India’s leading role in South Asia and emerging critical role in the broader Indo-Pacific region, CNAS research will explore the possibilities for expanding the US-India strategic partnership, taking a maximalist long-term vision of relations. In particular, CNAS will focus on possibilities for expanding defence and security cooperation; climate change cooperation; and collaboration on emerging and critical technologies, as well as examine ways to elevate and operationalize the Quad. The idea is to think more strategically about India’s role in the broader Indo-Pacific.
Another important area of research is examining closely India-China relations and giving some thought about how a future potential border conflict can be avoided. It is critical that the US policymakers think through lessons learned from last year’s border crisis since the future direction of India-China relations has broad-ranging consequences both in the region and globally.