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EFSAS Commentary

The possible impact on South Asia of Joe Biden’s victory: China and Afghanistan policies will hold the key


Despite a clearly expressed mandate for Joe Biden at the 3 November elections, the infantile shenanigans of Donald Trump, the outgoing President of the United States (US), are doing a great disservice to democracy in general, and to his country’s standing in the comity of nations. The US has for generations stood at the apex of the democratic pyramid, but Trump seems hell-bent on turning it into a laughing stock. His disregard for the practices of democracy and his attempt to hold on to office despite being trounced at the elections are setting bad and dangerous examples for less robust democracies, as also for those that have had a history of democracy, even if imperfect, but have in recent years tended to explore the borders of democratic propriety taking advantage of the trend of the past few years of a sharp rightward swing in the US and in several other key countries around the world. While that could form the subject of a separate study paper altogether, what we will look at more closely today is the impact that Biden’s ascension to the presidency could potentially have on the countries of South Asia.

For the smaller countries of South Asia such as Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives, the transition in Washington DC is a distant matter with limited direct ramifications. The tiny chain of Islands that constitute the Maldives, which is strategically located and has been courted aggressively by China in recent years, may be the recipient of increased US attention under Biden, especially after the US opens an embassy in Male, which the outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced recently. The present Bangladesh government, which has been accused by critics of subverting democracy and violating human rights, could come under pressure from the US to mend it ways. In addition to using the China card to ward off such pressure, the Sheikh Hasina-led government is also likely to tap into its goodwill with the Indian government to keep the US at bay.

Sri Lanka, which under the Rajapaksa brothers has developed a close relationship with China, is also expected to come under increased scrutiny from the Biden administration. During Pompeo’s visit to the island nation last month, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa suggested to Pompeo that the US find ways of investing in the island nation if it wanted to keep China out. A list of sectors in which American investment would be welcome in Sri Lanka had also been handed over to Pompeo. That list is likely to be looked at closely by Biden. There is also some apprehension among sections of the majority Sinhala community in Sri Lanka that Biden could pillory Colombo on the human rights and ethnic reconciliation issues, as Democrats have traditionally taken up rights issues. However, the suggestion of senior Sri Lankan journalist H.L.D. Mahindapala that Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris could take up the Tamil “separatist” cause as she is half Tamil herself sounds more like a projection of paranoia.

For the three larger countries of South Asia, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the impact of the change in the US may be felt more directly. On Afghanistan, Biden, like Trump, has been a votary of a withdrawal of US troops from the country. So much so that Biden had vocally opposed Barack Obama’s troop surge in 2010 despite being his Vice-President. He has also been supportive of the peace process in Afghanistan that was started during the Trump presidency. A crucial difference between the views of Biden and Trump, however, has been that while Trump wanted the troops out at any cost, Biden favours a more gradual and “responsible” withdrawal of forces. As Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars put it, Biden “may slow down the pace of troop departures if violence levels continue to surge and if the Taliban—as is likely—keeps rejecting ceasefire or violence reduction demands. A slowdown in troop departures could improve US relations with an Afghan government that has long worried about a Trump-led precipitous withdrawal…Biden may also be stricter than Trump in interpreting the US-Taliban agreement, signed in February, which calls for all US troops to withdraw by next spring so long as the Taliban has ceased cooperation with al-Qaeda and other actors that threaten America. There’s little indication the Taliban has done so. Given that Biden has long argued that counterterrorism considerations should guide US policy in Afghanistan, he wouldn’t necessarily give the Taliban a free pass… Look for Biden to push what he’s long championed—a small, residual, counterterrorism-focused force. Admittedly, this could prompt a major disagreement with the Taliban, which wants all US troops out”.

The situation in Afghanistan today is complex, uncertain and fluid. While the Afghan government and the Taliban are supposedly in the midst of US-brokered talks, fighting between their respective troops continues to rage throughout the country, with the Afghan troops frequently requesting US airpower to repel Taliban offensives. As brought out in the EFSAS Commentary of 06-11-2020, other terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which the Taliban had pledged in the February agreement to neutralize, continue to launch large-scale attacks even in the capital, Kabul. The end result of such a chaotic milieu is difficult to predict.

It is this very chaos in Afghanistan that Pakistan will hope to exploit with the Biden administration. For decades, Washington has largely viewed the US-Pakistan relationship through the lens of Afghanistan. The inevitable withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan means that the US-Pakistan relationship will soon need to identify a new basis. Barring a bit of back-patting after it helped get its strategic asset, the Taliban, to the negotiating table with the US, Pakistan had been given the veritable cold shoulder by Trump. A country that has mastered the art of first creating, and then ostensibly helping curb, instability and messiness in Afghanistan, Pakistan has condemned Afghanistan to an unending series of violent cycles. The military establishment in Pakistan would view Biden’s victory as an opportunity to finally get back someone in Washington DC to whom it could sell its spiel on its indispensability to any untying of the Afghan knot. As Lieutenant General (Retired) Talat Masood, a senior Pakistani analyst of political and military affairs, put it, “The Trump-era contempt for diplomacy will end if Biden is elected. But we shouldn’t raise the bar of expectation”.

On the other hand, for the Biden administration how the situation unfolds in Afghanistan could dictate its broader outlook towards Pakistan. By virtue of his several decades of working with foreign policy, Biden will begin his term with a far deeper understanding of Pakistan than Trump had. That will mean that a sharp US focus will continue to be directed towards the Pakistani military establishment’s escapades with terrorists of all hues. After all, Biden was Vice-President when Osama Bin Laden was discovered sheltered in a mansion in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad even as Pakistan professed to be working in conjunction with the US in its war on terror. Further, many of Biden’s past engagements with Islamabad took place during the Obama administration, when bilateral relations were especially tense. Also, despite being honoured in 2008 with Pakistan’s second-highest civilian honor, ‘Hilal-e-Pakistan’, Biden will be well aware that since then Pakistan has for all practical purposes transformed into a client State of China. Nevertheless, any broadening of the US’ relationship with Pakistan in a bid to weaken Islamabad’s ties with Beijing will most likely be dependent upon sufficient progress being made on Afghanistan and counterterrorism.

As for India, a glimpse of how Biden views the country can be gleaned from his campaign document titled ‘Joe Biden’s agenda for the Indian American community’, which highlighted that “Biden played a lead role, both as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice President, in systematically deepening our strategic engagement, people-to-people ties, and collaboration with India on global challenges. In 2006, Biden announced his vision for the future of US-India relations: ‘My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States’. He has also worked to make that vision a reality, including leading the charge in Congress, working with Democrats and Republicans, to approve the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008”. The document added, “Biden was a major champion of growing and expanding the US-India partnership. Recognizing India’s growing role on the world stage, the Obama-Biden Administration formally declared US support for India’s membership in a reformed and expanded United Nations Security Council. The Obama-Biden Administration also named India a ‘Major Defense Partner’.....President Obama and Vice President Biden also strengthened our cooperation with India to fight terrorism in each of our countries and across the region. Biden believes there can be no tolerance for terrorism in South Asia – cross-border or otherwise. A Biden Administration will also work with India to support a rules-based and stable Indo-Pacific region in which no country, including China, is able to threaten its neighbors with impunity”. The document concluded that “Biden will deliver on his long-standing belief that India and the United States are natural partners, and a Biden Administration will place a high priority on continuing to strengthen the US-India relationship. No common global challenge can be solved without India and the United States working as responsible partners”

The width of the relationship with India that Biden envisages is apparent from the document, and the depth of his desire for India to be among the key partners of the US as it resets its worldview is obvious from his reiteration of his 2006 vision that the two countries be the closest in the world. In an essay outlining his foreign policy priorities in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Biden underlined the need to fortify the US’ collective capabilities with its democratic friends, including India. The fact that Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris’ mother hailed from India and that Harris continues to nurture ties with her relatives in India and hold warm feeling towards the country will only add more weight to the relationship. All of this points towards a continuation of the close and mutually beneficial relationship under Biden.

Some analysts, quoting both Biden and Harris, have argued that India will come under increased pressure from the Biden administration on issues such as secularism, human rights and Jammu & Kashmir. The fact that Biden had fleetingly referred to each of these in another campaign document titled ‘Joe Biden’s agenda for Muslim – American communities’ has been quoted as proof. While the Biden administration can be expected to speak out more frequently on these issues than the Trump administration did, it will almost certainly take care to ensure that its criticism is neither so stinging nor so repetitive that it ends up alienating the Indian leadership. As Kugelman wrote, “A Democratic administration wouldn't want to rock the boat with India by calling it out too much”, given that the core focus will be on India’s strategic value.

The China factor, meanwhile, can be expected to play a major role in determining the nature and scope of the US – India relationship. A supporter of engagement with Beijing since the 1970s, Biden held extensive meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping when both served as Vice-President in 2011. Biden’s stance toward China, however, has hardened over the past decade. On the campaign trail, Biden was highly critical of Beijing for its actions in Hong Kong, dubbed its policies towards the Uyghurs of Xinjiang “unconscionable”, and called the Chinese President a “thug”. In his Foreign Affairs essay, Biden wrote, “China represents a special challenge. I have spent many hours with its leaders, and I understand what we are up against. China is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future….The United States does need to get tough with China. If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property. It will also keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage — and a leg up on dominating the technologies and industries of the future”.

Biden wrote on his proposed counter to the China problem, “The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security. On its own, the United States represents about a quarter of global GDP. When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles. China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy. That gives us substantial leverage to shape the rules of the road on everything from the environment to labor, trade, technology, and transparency, so they continue to reflect democratic interests and values”. Biden will almost certainly count India as a prominent representative of the “united front of US allies and partners”.

The existing commonalities between India and the US, India’s strategic positioning in the US worldview, the bipartisan support in the US for counterbalancing China, and the improbability of President-elect Biden deciding to accommodate China instead of containing it, will all serve to ensure an even closer and more structured India – US relationship than was witnessed during the Trump years.