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EFSAS Commentary

The early signals from the Biden administration on South Asia are along expected lines


A huge sense of relief accompanied guarded optimism as Joe Biden was sworn in on 20 January as the 46th President of the United States (US). The extensive damage done to the international order by the outgoing President Donald Trump meant that it was not just Americans who experienced these emotions, a large number of world leaders and common folk also went through them. One of the most admired leaders in the world today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, gave words to these emotions by responding when asked to describe Trump's term in office that “There is no question. The history books will tell us it has been tumultuous. Regardless of where we are on the political spectrum, I think we all benefit from healthy debate, where you don't see too much heavy partisan tribal politicking that leads to unrest. I really hope that on behalf of the globe we see a more settled period but one in which ideas are still contested”.

The international community has placed a lot of hope on Biden undoing most of the harm that Trump had engineered in both the bilateral and multilateral domains. As Charles Michel, President of the European Council, asserted in his tweet congratulating Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, “It's time to bring back conviction & common sense and rejuvenate our EU-US relationship”. Biden began the process of living up to the expectations from him on his very first day in office, when he signed 15 executive actions addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and racial inequality, and undoing some of the policies put in place by Trump. That notwithstanding, most of the guardedness to the optimism surrounding Biden’s ascension remained. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, explained why that was so during an address to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) hours before Biden's inauguration. She said, “once again, after four long years, Europe has a friend in the White House. President Trump may be history in a few hours, but his supporters remain. More than 70 million Americans voted for Trump in the election. A few hundred of them stormed the Capitol in Washington, the heart of American democracy, just a few days ago. And this really is what it looks like when words put into deeds, when hate speech and fake news become a real danger to democracy. Despite established democracy being embedded here, we cannot assume that we are immune to these phenomena”. She urged Europeans to beware of “people who adhere to wildly rampant conspiracy theories, an often confused mixture of completely absurd fantasies”.

The leadership and the people of South Asia have also been observing the unprecedented and unimaginable scenes unfolding in Washington DC in the final days of the Trump presidency. As had been brought out in the EFSAS Commentary of 13-11-2020 titled ‘The possible impact on South Asia of Joe Biden’s victory: China and Afghanistan policies will hold the key’, the path that the Biden administration chooses to take would influence India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the larger countries in South Asia, most directly. In India, furthermore, the swearing in of Biden’s deputy Kamala Harris added a warm personal nuance to the change of guard given the Vice President’s Indian ancestry. It is also noteworthy that for the first time in US history more than 20 Indian-Americans have been either appointed or nominated to be part of the US government, with as many as 17 of them in key positions. Significantly, some of them, such as Uzra Zeya, a diplomat who was nominated to the important position of Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, and Aisha Shah, who is the new partnerships manager for Biden’s White House Office of Digital Strategy, trace their roots to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged both Harris’ achievement and her ancestry in his message to her after she assumed office. Modi wrote, “Congratulations to @KamalaHarris on being sworn-in as @VP. It is a historic occasion. Looking forward to interacting with her to make India-USA relations more robust. The India-USA partnership is beneficial for our planet”. In his message to Biden the Indian PM wrote, “My warmest congratulations to @JoeBiden on his assumption of office as President of the United States of America. I look forward to working with him to strengthen India-US strategic partnership”. Modi extended best wishes to Biden “for a successful term in leading USA”, adding that India and the US “stand united and resilient in addressing common challenges and advancing global peace and security. The India-US partnership is based on shared values. We have a substantial and multifaceted bilateral agenda, growing economic engagement and vibrant people to people linkages. Committed to working with President @JoeBiden to take the India-US partnership to even greater heights”.

Early signals that have emanated from the Biden administration have suggested that the US under Biden will indeed focus on strengthening the India-US relationship and taking it to “greater heights”. As had been assessed in the aforementioned EFSAS Commentary, in addition to the important commonality of democracy and similarity of worldview, one of the key motivators for the Biden administration to prioritize robust ties with India remains the same as it was under Trump – hardly any other country can add value to the US’ ambition to contain China’s aggression, expansion and quest for world domination the way India can.

Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State Antony Blinken reflected this reality when he told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing on 19 January that “Not one of the big challenges we face can be met by one country acting alone – even one as powerful as the US. We can revitalize our core alliances - force multipliers of our influence around the world. Together, we are far better positioned to counter threats posed by Russia, Iran, and North Korea and to stand up for democracy and human rights”. While distancing himself from Trump’s needling of allies and denunciations of multilateralism, Blinken agreed, however, that Trump “was right in taking a tougher approach to China”. He added, “I disagree very much with the way he went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one”. Blinken also backed the determination by the outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that China was committing genocide against the Uighurs and other minorities, and he pledged to keep looking at ways to block the import of Chinese products that involve forced labor and preventing the export of technology that could “further their repression”.

On the other hand, Blinken underlined that “India has been a bipartisan success story of our successive administrations”. He elaborated, “During the Obama administration, we deepened cooperation on defense procurement and information sharing, and the Trump administration carried that forward including its concept of Indo-Pacific and to make sure we were working with India so that no country in the region including China could challenge its sovereignty and also working with it on concerns that we share about terrorism”. Blinken identified climate change as another critical area in which India-US cooperation held a lot of promise. He pointed out that “Prime Minister Modi has been a very strong advocate of renewable energy and different technologies. I think there is very strong potential for our countries to work together”.

During his Senate confirmation hearing on 19 January, Biden's nominee for Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin reiterated the imperative for the US to counter China. He said, “I assess that the rapid development and operational focus of the People's Republic of China (PRC) constitutes a significant and long-term security threat to the United States and to our allies and partners. This threat is an outgrowth of nearly two decades of intense efforts by China to modernise and reform the PLA and other forces into an increasingly capable joint force able to conduct the full range of military operations across every warfighting domain. China has also made it clear that it expects the PLA to be a global military actor that is able to secure China's growing overseas interests and advance other PRC objectives abroad. These changes are coupled with the PRC's aggressive and at times coercive activities aimed at advancing its military influence through forging closer ties with foreign militaries, attaining overseas military bases, and expanding the PLA's presence worldwide”.

Austin stressed that on the global stage Asia must be the focus of the US effort, and that he sees “China, in particular, as the pacing challenge for the Department”. Austin also said that “Globally, I believe the most significant challenge I will face will be to ensure the Department of Defense’s continued efforts to prepare and strengthen the US military for a dynamic, future security landscape driven by accelerating competitions with China and with Russia – with China as our pacing threat in most areas – while still ensuring our ability to deter today’s range of threats. I believe that because of its ascent and the scope and scale of its military modernization, China is the top priority”. He added that in his assessment, the “rapid development and operational focus” of China and the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), including its ability to conduct information, cyber and space operations, “constitutes a significant and long-term security threat to the United States and to our allies and partners”. Further, China’s “increasingly aggressive actions” in the Indo-Pacific were also of concern, to offset which the US needed a “more resilient and distributed force posture in the Indo-Pacific in response to China’s counter-intervention capabilities and approaches”.

In contrast, in response to a question on his priorities for India, Austin said his “overarching objective for our defense relationship with India would be to continue elevating the partnership”. He added, “I would further operationalise India’s ‘Major Defense Partner’ status and continue to build upon existing strong defence cooperation to ensure the US and Indian militaries can collaborate to address shared interests. I would also seek to deepen and broaden our defence cooperation through the Quad security dialogue and other regional multilateral engagements”.

The Pakistani daily The News International reported on 21 January that Austin, qualifying the role that the new administration envisaged for Pakistan, had told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “Pakistan is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan”. The daily added that Austin had asserted that the Biden administration viewed Pakistan's efforts against terrorism as “incomplete”, and that he therefore intended to press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organizations. Austin also mentioned regional players like Pakistan while alluding to “spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process”. With the peace process in Afghanistan firmly in focus, Austin said that his department would train future Pakistan military leaders through the use of International Military Education and Training funds, and would continue “to build relationships with Pakistan’s military”. Recalling that President Trump had suspended all the financial and security aid to Pakistan in 2018 citing lack of cooperation from Islamabad in the fight against terrorism, Austin opined that “Many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack”.

These initial indications from senior representatives nominated by the Biden administration are by and large along the lines anticipated in the EFSAS Commentary of 13-11-2020. The US under Biden is likely to remain tough on China and continue its pro-India policy to counter Beijing. New Delhi will also figure prominently in the new administration’s endeavour to counter China's hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region. As Blinken said recently, India and the US face a common challenge in the form of an “increasingly assertive” China, and New Delhi has to be a key US partner in engaging with Beijing from a position of strength. The Biden administration has also signaled that it will predicate relations with Pakistan on the country’s future contribution towards furthering the peace process in Afghanistan as well as on Islamabad’s cessation of sponsorship of terrorism in its neighbourhood.

That said, countries in South Asia, as in the rest of the world, should also anticipate some fresh expectations from the US based on the lessons Biden and his team would have drawn from the divisive and violent closing days of the “tumultuous” Trump presidency – democracy, rule of law and human rights could all become relevant and fashionable again.