China, democracy and COVID-19: Reading between the lines of Modi-Biden call readouts

As one would expect, COVID-19 and climate change were always going to feature in discussions, since they are the most pressing concerns for the world today

FP Politics November 19, 2020 13:03:00 IST
China, democracy and COVID-19: Reading between the lines of Modi-Biden call readouts

File image of Narendra Modi and Joe Biden. AP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among a series of heads of government with whom US president-elect Joe Biden had telephonic conversations on Tuesday — his first after winning the presidential election held earlier this month. And while President Donald Trump continues to drag out proceedings by among other things refusing access to the transition teams, demanding recounts all over the place and having his team file a whole host of lawsuits against states, Biden has begun preparing for life in the White House. A critical element of which is foreign relations.

The following are the unedited readouts of the Modi-Biden phone conversation provided by the Prime Minister's Office and Biden-Harris Transition:

Readout provided by the Prime Minister's Office

"Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a telephone conversation today with His Excellency Joseph R. Biden, President-elect of the United States of America.

Prime Minister Modi warmly congratulated President-elect Biden on his election, describing it as a testament to the strength and resilience of democratic traditions in the United States.

The Prime Minister also extended his heartiest congratulations and best wishes to Vice President-elect Senator Kamala Harris.

The Prime Minister warmly recalled his earlier interactions with H.E. Joseph R. Biden, including during his official visits to the United States in 2014 and in 2016. H.E. Joseph R. Biden had chaired the Joint Session of the U.S. Congress that was addressed by the Prime Minister during his 2016 visit.

The leaders agreed to work closely to further advance the India-U.S. Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, built on shared values and common interests. The leaders also discussed their priorities, including containing the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting access to affordable vaccines, tackling climate change, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region."

Readout provided by the Biden-Harris transition team

The president-elect spoke with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. The president-elect thanked the prime minister for his congratulations and expressed his desire to strengthen and expand the U.S.-India strategic partnership alongside the first vice president of South Asian descent. The president-elect noted that he looks forward to working closely with the prime minister on shared global challenges, including containing COVID-19 and defending against future health crises, tackling the threat of climate change, launching the global economic recovery, strengthening democracy at home and abroad, and maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.

While largely similar, the Biden-Harris version eschews some of the flummery of the PMO version, they can both be distilled down to the following key points (common ones in black, unique ones in red):

Prime Minister's Office Biden-Harris Transition
"advance the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership"
"containing the COVID-19 pandemic" "containing COVID-19 "
"access to affordable vaccines"
"tackling climate change" "tackling the threat of climate change"
"cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region" "maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region"
"launching the global economic recovery"
"strengthening democracy at home and abroad"
"defending against future health crises"

This is neither to suggest that either or both of the leaders experienced call drops at certain points of the conversation, nor to claim that somebody's telling porkies — an accusation that can and was levelled against the Pakistani government for its version of then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif's phone conversation with then-president-elect Donald Trump back in 2016.

Surely you remember it: The one in which Trump allegedly gushed to Sharif, "[You] have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way... Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people." It's not entirely clear, particularly after the past four years, how much a certificate of intelligence or terrific-ness from Trump is worth, but that's neither here nor there.

As we move on from that humorous aside, it's worth also noting that India and the US will seek to simultaneously move away and lean into different aspects of the past four years. For starters, a shift from the transactional nature of ties — best typified by Trump's "give me hydroxychloroquine or face retaliation" threat back in April this year — to a more wholesome relationship is something both countries will seek. Meanwhile, they will both seek to build on the momentum gained by the bilateral, particularly the boost to the strategic partnership provided by the signing of key foundational agreements during Trump's presidency.

It's important to preface any analysis of telephone conversation readouts by noting that these tend to be a very concise summation of key discussion points, which means one party might decide to leave out something, while the other may choose to leave it in. Another feature of these readouts is that they generally don't betray the positions taken by any of the parties over the course of the discussion. As such, no concrete conclusions can be drawn about the discussion, but tiny indications can be picked up.

First, as one would expect, COVID-19 , climate change and the Indo-Pacific Region were always going to feature in discussions, since the first two are among the most pressing concerns for the world today. The third is a key area of convergence for India and the US, not least because both countries are wary of an expansionist China in the region. More on this very shortly.

Second, while the Indian readout mentioned a discussion on 'access to affordable vaccines', the US counterpart spoke of 'defending against future health crises'. Termed differently and highlighting different aspects, it can be safely concluded that both these mentions refer to cooperation in the field of healthcare, which given is no surprise given the ravages of the coronavirus .

Third, the PMO's readout referred to advancing the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. Taken at face value, this seems like a perfectly normal, and perhaps even slightly dull, takeaway from the conversation, but reading between the lines is instructive. In July this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the US-India Business Council and outlined the three pillars of the Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership: Acknowledging shared challenges, delivering solutions together and building a brighter future.

Innocuous though these pillars may seem, particularly to observers in Beijing, Pompeo elaborated on these points and in doing so, laid his cards on the table: The shared challenges were an allusion to Chinese expansionism and belligerence, particularly on India's borders; delivering solutions together referred to the Quad and the work its members could do in the Indo-Pacific Region; finally, by 'building a brighter future', the secretary of state was talking about diversifying global supply chains and in doing so, reducing dependence on China.

Coupled with both readouts also mentioning the Indo-Pacific Region, it can be surmised that China took up a fair bit of air time in the discussion between Modi and Biden, even though neither readout mentioned the country by name.

Fourth, if Pakistan and terrorism were discussed at all, they were left off both readouts. Considering how India, rightly — it could be argued, makes a big deal about naming Pakistan and calling out terrorism in most official communiqués, it's fair to assume that the topics didn't come up. And if they did, they weren't discussed for very long.

Finally, the Biden readout makes mention of two other topics that do not appear on the PMO version. The first is a reference to bringing about the global economic recovery. There's probably not a country in the world that would be opposed to that. The second is a relatively pricklier "strengthening [of] democracy at home and abroad". The topic of Afghanistan may well have popped up in that part of the discussion. It's also a distinct possibility that the former vice-president shared his insights and views about the bitter backdrop of divisiveness to the recently-held US election and the acrimonious aftermath. What's most unlikely is that the matters of Kashmir and the protests against the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act were up for discussion.

While Biden and Harris have both spoken against the Indian government's actions and excesses in the troubled Union Territory, it must be kept in mind that these utterances came while they were still very much in the Opposition. For better or worse, foreign policy endures and transcends administrations and ideologies. The India-US relationship is too far along and spread across far too many fields for Biden to risk engaging with a topic that clearly makes New Delhi very uncomfortable (see India's reactions to Malaysia and Turkey for speaking out on Kashmir).

Certainly, Washington is no Ankara or Kuala Lumpur. The cost of jeopardising bilateral relations will be too hefty for either Biden or Modi to bear and it is likely that status quo will set in, at least as far as Kashmir and the topic of human rights in India is concerned. Biden will walk a tightrope between turning a blind eye to India's 'internal matters' so as to strengthen ties with a partner in an important part of the world, and giving in to pressure from the more progressive members of the Democratic party to speak out against or act against India for human rights violations leading to the loss of the most critical part of former president Barack Obama's "pivot" to Asia that Biden may seek to revive.

For now, we'll just have to wait and watch. A clearer picture may develop in the weeks and months after 20 January, 2021.

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