Contours of Joe Biden’s emerging Indo-Pacific and India policy mirror Donald Trump era

The emerging contour of Joe Biden’s China policy is predicated on a multilateral, issue-based approach with allies and key partners

Sreemoy Talukdar February 11, 2021 11:22:01 IST
Contours of Joe Biden’s emerging Indo-Pacific and India policy mirror Donald Trump era

File image of US president Joe Biden. AP

As he settles down in Oval Office, Joe Biden is striving to differentiate his administration’s foreign policy from that of Donald Trump’s. That is understandable. The president of the United States has inherited an intense US-China rivalry from his predecessor and feels the need to stamp his own signature on the geopolitical, geo-economic curve that is reshaping the global balance of power.

However, even as Biden announces that “America is back” and claims “major shifts” in approach, early signals from the new administration on a key foreign policy tenet — bilateral ties with India — suggest more consistency and continuity with the Trump administration than Biden is willing to admit.

Right from the days of campaigning for the top job, Biden has said that he understands the true nature of the China challenge that has undergone a complete transformation since the time he demitted office as vice-president. This threat to America’s global hegemony arises from a rapidly powerful Beijing’s rapacious, coercive behavior and its vaulting ambition to shape the world in its authoritarian image. In his policy prescription, Biden has advocated a multilateral approach to tackle China as opposed to what he called Trump’s “go-it-alone” policy.

This policy is presumably at a nascent stage of development, but we do get a glimpse of Biden’s approach from the comments, speeches and statements that he and his team have made since the inauguration. Axios reports, quoting NSC spokesperson Emily Horne that “from technology to global health to international economics”, “virtually every team” in the new administration’s National Security Council will incorporate China into their work as an example of Biden’s “whole-of-government” approach towards China.

During an address at the US Department of State on 4 February — his first major foreign policy speech since assuming office — Biden claimed a clean break with Trump’s ‘America First’ policy to take a more globalist approach.

He declared: “I want the world to hear today: America is back. America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” and proceeded to stress that “America’s alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.” He called China “our most serious competitor” and vowed to “compete from a position of strength by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost.”

In a subsequent CBS interview, published by the US news network on Sunday, Biden said the US “need not have a conflict (with China) but there is going to be extreme competition” and added, “I’m not going to do it the way Trump did. We are going to focus on the international rules of the road.”

The emerging contour of Biden’s China policy, therefore, is predicated on a multilateral, issue-based approach with allies and key partners. This is being hammered down the line by key members of his administration.

For instance, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan has called “revitalizing America’s alliances” a top priority of Biden’s foreign policy for the “United States to be able to deal with both great power competition and the transnational threats that the American people face”. Sullivan went on to add during a press briefing on 4 February that “once we have established this position of strength, we will be able to compete more effectively with our competitors across the board and especially with China, in every domain — economic, diplomatic, technological, security, you name it.”

We see this approach reflected in Sullivan’s conversation with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval. The White House readout states that Sullivan and Doval “discussed the importance of continuing close cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, promoting regional security, and renewing efforts to collaborate on global challenges, including COVID-19 and climate change.” In diplomatic parlance, “cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, promoting regional security” and euphemisms for meeting the challenge posed by China in the Indo-Pacific theatre.

Or take US secretary of state Antony Blinken, who has said that “we have to be able to approach China from a position of strength, not weakness. And that strength, I think, comes from having strong alliances, something China does not have.” As an example of building partnerships, Blinken has already chatted twice with Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar. During the 29 January conversation, Blinken “underscored India’s role as a preeminent US partner in the Indo-Pacific and the importance of working together to expand regional cooperation, including through the Quad.”

A few days later on 9 February, Myanmar was the focus when Blinken dialed Jaishankar again. The US secretary of state “expressed concern over the military coup and the importance of rule of law and the democratic process in Burma” but also “discussed regional developments, including the value of US-India cooperation across the Indo-Pacific. Both sides look forward to expanded regional cooperation, including through the Quad, and to address the challenges of COVID and climate change,” states the White House readout.

Note the emphasis on Quad, the quadrilateral framework of democracies elevated by the Trump administration that new US NSA Sullivan has vowed to “carry forward” and “build on”. Sullivan, at an event last month, called the Quad format a “mechanism which we see as fundamental a foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo Pacific region.”

In his inaugural conversation with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin

On the centrality of US-India partnership in American foreign policy, let us look at a recent statement by the Biden administration. State department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters at a press briefing on Tuesday that “India is one of the most important partners in the Indo-Pacific region to us. We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and its role as a net security provider in the region. We cooperate on a wide range of diplomatic and security issues, including defense, nonproliferation, regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, counterterrorism, peacekeeping, the environment, health, education, technology, agriculture, space, and oceans.”

On a question regarding China’s aggression along the LAC in Ladakh, the US official said, “We are concerned by Beijing’s pattern of ongoing attempts to intimidate its neighbors. As always, we’ll stand with friends, we’ll stand with partners, we’ll stand with allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in, in this case, the Indo-Pacific.”

The picture that emerges from these statements is of a US administration that considers alliance-building and partnership-strengthening as a bulwark of its foreign policy, certainly one which it believes will help the US in mitigating the China challenge. Biden claims to be moving “quickly to begin restoring American engagement internationally and earn back our leadership position, to catalyze global action on shared challenges.” Inherent in these submissions is the assumption that in most cases this approach constitutes a break from US foreign policy under Trump’s “go-it-alone” approach.

This assumption is misleading. In differentiating the grammar of American foreign policy, the new administration has oft-used the common refrain “unilateral” to define Trump’s foreign policy. At least in the Indo-Pacific theatre — the most consequential for the US grappling with China’s rise — the Trump administration made every effort to carry forward allies and key strategic partners such as India.

Sullivan talks about carrying forward with the Quad framework, a format built on a cooperative approach of democracies. Here’s what the White House says on the Biden-Modi telephone conversation on February 8. “The leaders agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad.”

The MEA release, while not mentioning Quad, states that both leaders “reiterated the importance of working with like-minded countries to ensure a rules-based international order and a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.”

This reliance on the Quad framework primarily as a security tool to mitigate China’s malevolence in the Indo-Pacific theatre flows from the institutionalization of the format for which the Trump administration deserves plaudits. As Lisa Curtis, former NSC director, tells Axios, “the Trump administration elevated the Quad by holding two Quad meetings at the secretarial level, one at the deputy level, and six at the assistant secretary level, said Curtis, demonstrating a strong U.S. commitment to the partnership.”

The US strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific, a key national security document prepared in 2018 and declassified by the outgoing Trump administration in January a few days before demitting office, makes it quite evident that “contrary to concerns that the Trump administration was veering to a one-dimensional, military-led external policy, there was a clear recognition of the need for holistic engagement to bolster allies and counter China, across the full spectrum from information operations to advanced technology research and infrastructure investment,” as Rory Medcalf of the Australian National University writes in ASPI.

The lightly redacted document, believed to be largely authored by then NSC director Matt Pottinger in 2018, calls for “aligning US Indo-Pacific strategy with those of India, Australia and Japan.” It aims to “create a quadrilateral security framework” with the three Indo-Pacific democracies and the United States as the “principal hubs”. It seeks to “deepen trilateral cooperation with Japan and Australia, encourage South Korea to play a larger role in regional security issues beyond the Korean peninsula” and “empower Japan to become a regionally-integrated, technologically advanced pillar of the Indo-Pacific security architecture.” The strategic document also seeks to “support India’s Act East policy and its aspiration to be a leading global power, highlighting its compatibility with the US, Japan and Australian vision of a free-and-open Indo-Pacific”.

These point to a coherent and integrated policy approach towards Indo-Pacific with an aim to curb China’s predatory rise — and it would seem that Biden has taken a leaf out of Trump’s policy. Indeed, in a cover note clarifying the decision to declassify the document, former US NSA Robert O’Brien said “the Framework seeks to strengthen our wide and diverse network of allies and partners, which has long underwritten stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific. To that end, the Framework reflects the importance of supporting allies’ and partners’ complementary approaches to regional engagement.”

To sum, the US Indo-Pacific policy — and the US-India relationship as a subset within that framework — is a statement of remarkable bipartisan consensus amid a bitterly polarised US polity. That the domestic political tension hasn’t spilled on to the policy arena reinforms the fact that foreign policy is borne out of a nation’s self-interest. The Biden administration might be making a lot of noises about how different it is from the Trump era, the available evidence, however, suggests congruity and stability beneath the rhetoric.

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