‘President Biden’s foreign policy will be more traditional, less transactional, and more strategic in nature.’
After the “unprecedented dark page” of American politics the world witnessed in the insurrection at the Capitol Hill on 6 January, President Joe Biden and his key appointees, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary, General Llyod Austin, have immediately swung into engaging the world after the inauguration.
Not only the new President called key alliance partners to strengthen US foreign relations by meeting the challenges ahead, Blinken and Austin have already set their targets to engage for “comprehensive strategic and security partnerships”.
Interestingly, India was on top on the mind of both. Secretary Blinken had already spoken to his counterpart, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and vowed to carry forward and strengthen India-US strategic ties, the growing economic engagement and the health cooperation between the two. Gen Austin last week had already made his agenda clear of “engaging India as a comprehensive defence partner” and had formally spoken to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Security experts from both countries are also in touch to expand the cooperation ambit to meet challenges of terrorism and the security threats emerging in the Indo-Pacific region, primarily the common threat being China’s expansionist agenda in the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific waters.
Looks like India will have a role to play as the US lays out its new diplomatic agenda for the world under President Biden.
But there is a catch here. Diplomatic circles and international relations experts in Washington DC, however, caution India that “though the relationship will be moving towards further strengthening, but it will be not the same like President Trump era”. Some even say that the US may be opening doors to Pakistan again to “resolve their own diplomatic priorities in the region, particularly Afghanistan”, a situation India wouldn’t like to be in after enjoying that “unconditional US support against Pakistan.” But that also tells India to be “accommodating and understanding about US diplomatic challenges” as India will still remain a significant strategic and security partner.
South Asia expert and Director in Hudson Institute, Aparna Pande puts it to President Biden’s style of administration. Pande says: “President Biden’s foreign policy will be more traditional, less transactional, and more strategic in nature. For President Biden, alliances matter, as was demonstrated by the first few phone calls he made to foreign leaders: Canada, Mexico, UK and Europe. For him, Russia, like China, remains a threat, as was shown in his phone call with President Putin. And President Biden is someone who thinks long term and strategically when it comes to foreign policy. He is the first former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to become President, and understands the global dynamics.”
Diplomacy is high on Biden’s agenda, and he and his team are out to make a few shifts in foreign policy from what the world saw under President Donald Trump. Particularly in security affairs, a new shift is incoming, says Michael Kugelman, Woodrow Wilson Deputy Director and Asia expert.
“We can expect a sea change in security policy under Biden. While there will be some policy continuity with Trump on a broad level—such as a continued focus on China as Washington’s core foreign policy challenge—the differences will be profound. In fact, on many levels, we will see Biden try to return to status quo ante, pre-Trump. Biden will want to restore America’s alliances, re-engage with the world more broadly, pursue multilateralism, return to international institutions, and take a less confrontational approach to the world on the whole,” said Kugelman.
Added Pande: “President Biden, his NSA, and his Secretaries of Defense and State have shown that alliances and friendships matter. The first phone calls by all these key cabinet members were to American allies, those in North America, Europe, and Asia. The Biden administration wants to demonstrate its commitment to the alliance system by both words and deeds.”
But it’s not that Biden’s foreign policy is without a challenge. Most key would be winning back global trust as the key partners suspect US’ “superpower status and its role in global diplomacy in the post-Covid world”. It will take some time to convince US allies and partners of the US’ intent and capabilities. Perhaps Secretary Blinken’s European links will come to Biden’s aid in restoring Europe back in US’ “friends list”.
Kugelman says: “The Biden administration will definitely face a challenge of winning back trust and support, including with its treaty allies in Asia. It would be presumptuous to think that the Biden administration will magically regain the trust of its alliance partners simply by virtue of being a new, post-Trump dispensation. The Biden administration will have much work to do, with a need for sustained engagement with its friends. Keep in mind that even pre-Trump, during the Obama era, there was considerable uncertainty in Asian capitals about the degree of US commitment to the region.”
But what about India and its place in US foreign policy? Pande feels that President Biden understands South Asia. He has long been a friend of India and of India-US ties going back to his time in the Senate and then as Vice President. Then Senator Biden supported the India-US civil nuclear deal and as far back as 2006 spoke of the relationship with India being one of the key partnerships for the US. President Biden also understands Pakistan, dealt with Pakistan as Senator and Vice President, and understands the internal dynamics of Pakistan and the role of the Pakistani establishment.
She says, “India-US relationship is independent of US-Pakistan relationship and both have their own dynamics. The relationship with India will continue as it has since the Clinton-Bush-Obama and Trump administrations—strong on defence, economic, and people to people ties.”
Kugelman too agrees with Pande: “Relations with India will build on the momentum of the Trump years. We can expect them to continue to grow. Certainly, Biden will engage with Pakistan, but, as in the Trump years, this engagement, at least from Washington’s perspective, will be narrowly focused on Islamabad’s cooperation in Afghanistan and on its efforts to dismantle terrorist networks on its soil. While Pakistan, as it often does, will want the US to have more balanced relations with Pakistan and India, the reality is that there will be a growing imbalance—relations with India will continue to expand, while relations with Pakistan will be narrowly focused and rather uncertain given the impending withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.”
True. US-Pakistan relationship has its own dynamics with a focus on Afghanistan, terrorism, and concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The Afghan factor, and not India-Pakistan relations, is more likely to have an impact on what policies President Biden adopts towards Pakistan.
That will make both New Delhi and Washington get down to reset and strengthen strategic ties as the challenge to contain China and ensuring stability and security in the Indo-Pacific region will a common diplomatic agenda. There is conflicting news coming out of DC diplomatic circles. While some say Biden could press reset on US-China relations, whereas others have advocated continuing Trump’s aggressive approach. Pande says: “The statements of NSA Sullivan, Secretaries of Defense and State, the appointment of Kurt Campbell as Indo-Pacific coordinator in the White House National Security Council, all demonstrate that there will be little change in US-China relationship and that the peer competition with China is here to stay. The Biden administration is emphasizing ties with allies like South Korea and Japan, rebuilding relations with Atlantic partners, and pushing back against actions by Beijing… Regarding India-China relations, the US has shown it is on India’s side of the ledger, the question to be answered is what India’s policy towards China is going to be. And will India continue to hedge against China or become closer to the United States?”
That leaves with what India has in mind while dealing with China. Perhaps India can maintain the tough stance on territorial dispute and against Beijing’s “arbitrary expansionism”, it can gradually open up for “equitable economic engagement”. Perhaps Kugelman elaborates it aptly. He says: “We’ll see Biden pursue a policy of both countering and cooperating with China. The new administration will view China as a strategic threat, and it will try to build a global coalition to counter China’s muscular activities in the Indo-Pacific. But it will also pursue cooperation in non-security spaces, especially climate change and public health. That said, it will take some time to build sufficient trust for the cooperative element of the relationship to really take off.”
There will be tweaks and twists in Biden’s foreign policy for the world. But for India, some say rightly at the Capitol, the US needs India now and the two can work as perfect partners.