When Joe Biden was elected as the US President a little over 10 weeks ago, all doubts about major changes in American foreign policy were dismissed on the assumption that in national policies, things do not work that way. However, President Biden’s 17 acts of rolling back prominent Trump policies on the very first day could send some awkward signals about the way the new administration may view the outcome of the last four years of US policies.
The New York Times wrote after the inauguration: “Mr Biden’s first actions as president are sharply aimed at sweeping aside former President Donald J Trump’s pandemic response, reversing his environmental agenda, tearing down his anti-immigration policies, bolstering the teetering economic recovery and restoring federal efforts to promote diversity”. Looking at immigration as one of the policies transcending the internal to external, the recent Trump ban had caused much anguish for Indian visa aspirants. With 21 million jobs lost initially due to the pandemic causing 14.6% unemployment, it is not certain whether Biden’s largesse in reversal of the Trump policy is going to result in any immediate benefit for Indian aspirants.
Trump’s attitude towards India was supportive but fickle. He gave little leeway on trade but mainly targeted China on issues concerning trade tariffs. Biden’s policy cannot be too far stretched from this due to the state of the US economy, especially after the pandemic and the proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus, which cannot be prevented from flowing into the Chinese economy. It is also a fact that internal weakening of the US economy and the social dynamics prevalent in American society due to the deep political divide could prevent Biden from playing any hard options against China on issues such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, affording the latter to either progress on its strategy of coercion or look towards options of dilution after some initial testing. It is good to see the Biden administration displaying a bold intent by refusing to be intimidated by China over Taiwan; the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has already entered the South China Sea to promote ‘freedom of the seas’. A US attitude towards China some notches below in causticity and boldness could work either way for Sino-Indian relations.
China may press home for more strategic advantage or take a back seat in the Himalayas for another day; some signals in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim are making the former evident. More signs will be available by May-June 2021 or so, after some certainty in US policies has been established. Trump accorded a high status to India in his strategic calculus for the Indo Pacific in the containment of China; this was evident from the nature of the 2+2 Dialogue with India at the end of his term. However, it is unlikely that Biden will dilute this in any way as convergence of Indo-US interests has not been disturbed whatsoever by the exit of the Trump administration. A strong strategic relationship will be mutually beneficial if seen in conjunction with a restored US–European alliance, which had taken a beating under Trump on the issue of higher European share of expenditure on NATO, as also the handling of Middle East affairs.
With regard to the Quadrilateral of nations involving Japan, Australia, India and the US, the movement towards realisation of shared concerns and formulation of strategic intent perhaps progressed most expeditiously in the last six months when all constituents perceived a more aggressive China. Will Biden slow that momentum or expedite it? The weightage to Indo Pacific as part of the earlier Obama strategy of Rebalancing and Pivot to Asia would provide continuity even from the Trump era.
Ties between the US and Pakistan that remained on tenterhooks under Trump are assessed by some as being on the verge of taking off once again. The new US defence secretary, in his confirmation hearing with the American Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has expressed the need for engaging with the Pakistan military. The opinion expressed by him on India is laudatory and conveys the intent of taking the relationship to the next level. For many years, it has been well known that there can be no zero-sum game as far as US relations with India and Pakistan are concerned.
During the Trump era, de-hyphenation of Pakistan from India became a reality. India’s higher international strategic status demands that this continues progressively. Pakistan has in the interim moved closer to China but US-Pak mutual interests have not changed. The US needs Pakistan for its Afghanistan policy, which will contribute towards an eventual final withdrawal. On the other hand, Pakistan needs US support for its economy; the last time a $6 billion IMF loan to Pakistan was enabled by the US. Pakistan’s geostrategic location gives it out-of-proportion strategic stakes that it exploits to the hilt. The strength of India’s future strategy has to be despite that Pakistani advantage. The US is fully aware of this and of India’s significance in the Indo Pacific strategy.
Two other issues are of prime importance for India; the Middle East, which includes the handling of Iran; and India’s relationship with Russia. The stabilisation of the Middle East under Trump was a creditable achievement but lacks permanence. Will Biden disturb this artificial stabilisation by attempting to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)? Doing so will undo much of the last four years and a fresh set of dynamics will be triggered. India’s interests are primarily the opening of Iran’s energy supplies, the rights on development and usage of Chabahar, stability of the Gulf nations where the large Indian diaspora resides and a general absence of violence. A reset of Trump’s Middle East policy will prove a difficult decision as Israel’s peace with the Arabs resolves one major source of turbulence.
On Russia, India’s policy of multilateralism is perhaps being perceived as insufficiently favouring Moscow despite the frequent engagement that takes place between the two countries. The S-400 deal remains contentious in US eyes with no certainty about application of CAATSA. If the world starts to inch towards a likely Cold War between the US and China, India’s relationship with Russia is going to prove challenging.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir