“I actually believe that India has bipartisan, or in a sense non-partisan, support in American politics. Our footprint is very wide and so is our acceptability. Different sets of politicians who disagree on many things agree on India. And I think that is a very good place to be,” said Dr S Jaishankar, India’s External Affairs Minister in a press interview when asked about Biden Presidency.
A lot of what we read and form perspectives on, has increasingly been attributed to the now famous ‘Echo Chamber’ [i] effect. To the Trump bhakt who are still substantial in number, ‘He can do no wrong’; however, for the rest of the world, including many Americans, Trump is everything USA is not! As far as the other nations are concerned, from inept handling of the COVID crisis to abrogating numerous global key agreements, ridiculing and bullying allies/alliances, withdrawal from global leadership with an ‘America First at any Cost’ attitude, unending trade sanctions for frivolous reasons, political, economic, diplomatic and military coercion and bullying, a ‘either with us or against us’ ultimatum when it comes to China, increasing unpredictability and loss of credibility as a liberal democratic superpower has been their experience and perception. It will not be wrong to say that everyone is awaiting the arrival of President Joe Biden, return of US leadership, working as a team with her allies and restore stability in the geo-political-economic order. It is a long road ahead, as USA and Biden are no longer unipolar or superman, but for global stability and specially for the USA, he must come good.
Let us see the policy statements/commitments made by Biden during his electioneering and examine/analyse what, how much and what timeframe he will be able to keep his electoral promises within USA and to the world. One thing is certain even to a layman let alone the discerning, that the world order, international security environment, geo-political-economic-social landscape post COVID has changed forever.
Chinese Impatience and Overreach: Biden’s Opportunity
Sensing an opportunity and led by ambitious Xi Jinping, a rising, belligerent China (CCP) appears to be in an unseemly hurry to don the mantle of global leadership. China is guilty of spreading the coronavirus and withholding of vital information, exercising controversial global economic hegemony (BFI and debt traps), engaging in ‘Wolf diplomacy’, holding an abysmal human rights record, resorting to unabashed military posturing and threatening to upset the status quo in the China Seas (South and East) and India-China LAC at Ladakh.
Teaming up with Russia and other illiberal nations and using all domains of comprehensive national power at her disposal (PDIME – political, diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic) China is projecting power and dominance within international institutions, and in Asia and ‘the West’, showcasing that China’s time has come. The record of the last few years has not inspired a surge in faith in China as an alternative global leader. China’s rise to global power over the past decade has been perhaps the most consistent storyline in the world, but Gallup polling has found that China’s global approval rating, a median of 32 percent among over 130 countries has hardly budged in ten years. In the United Kingdom, disapproval of China was under 40 percent five years ago; today, it is almost 75 percent [ii], a trend also evident in many nations around the world. Many countries naturally still see significant opportunity in deeper ties with China. Yet over the last four years, opinions on Beijing’s leadership have soured in critical areas. And for Biden, that provides an opening. But to fully seize it, the new administration must restore the United States’ credibility, will, and reputation for global leadership.
President-elect Joe Biden has made many promises during his presidential campaign, and has made his stance known on many issues. Restoring American leadership accordingly, must include the more basic task of showing that the United States is a capable problem solver once more. The new administration will rightly give precedence to problem solving at home [iii]; ending the pandemic, jump-starting an equitable economic recovery, and reforming fraying democratic institutions. Biden has said he plans to pull the country out of the current crisis by “building back better” in a way that confronts economic inequality, systemic racism, and climate change. Yet major structural changes will take time. The Biden administration should therefore concurrently pursue foreign policy initiatives that can quickly highlight the return of American expertise and competence.
- COVID-19. Tackling the pandemic will be his highest priority on assumption of office. Placing science and health experts at the forefront, he has announced a coronavirus task force tasked to construct a plan based on compassion, empathy, and concern. Promised to reach out to all involved irrespective of party or position including passing a bill by Congress by end of Jan 2021, coordinating both public health and economic package till COVID is defeated, by expanding surveillance testing, providing healthcare and frontline workers with adequate personal protective equipment, and accelerating the development of treatment and vaccines. Expected to provide global leadership, and employ vast immunisation ecosystem resources for vaccine distribution and inoculation, specially to developing countries.
- Economy. Support small businesses through government aid; enforce oversight of larger MNCs seeking taxpayer assistance to ensure that the money goes towards their workers; relief plan that would provide additional funds to families in need; forgive a minimum of $10,000 in student loans and increase monthly social security cheques by $200 per month.
- Healthcare. Responsible as vice president for the passing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), says he’ll build upon the landmark legislation to ensure that more Americans have access to healthcare. He has expanded to expand federal funding for mental health services and substance use disorder services and research.
- Immigration. Biden has said that he will turn the clock back and eliminate the anti-immigration proclamations and executive orders issued by Trump. It would provide a pathway to citizenship for 5,00,000 residents from India. Biden promises to end prolonged detention of migrants and reform the current case management system, and reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which granted undocumented youth who came to the US protection from deportation and a renewable work permit. He will re-visit the US-Mexico border wall issue.
- Environment. Biden plans to work towards a 100 percent clean energy economy in the US by enacting legislation that invests in this area and incentivizing clean energy initiatives across the country.
- Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement. Opposes defunding the Police and wants to establish a $20 billion competitive grant programme for states so that they may be able to address some of the factors that lead to crime. Biden will also collaborate with the US Department of Justice to “address systemic misconduct in police departments and prosecutors’ offices,” expand financial resources for prosecutorial offices so that defendants may be subject to adequate counsel, and eliminate mandatory minimums and the death penalty. Has promised to address substance use disorder.
- Gun Safety. Strongly champion gun safety during his presidency. Among his plans include repealing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, Biden has also pledged to end the online sale of firearms and ammunition, which often do not require background checks.
- Gender Equality. Biden plans on addressing the gender wage gap by supporting the Paycheck Fairness Act, and also committed to monetarily supporting women-owned businesses as well as restoring the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which guarantees equal legal rights for all Americans regardless of sex and would explicitly address gender equality in the Constitution for the first time. He has co-sponsored the ERA nine times. ERA also bans discrimination of LGBTQ+ community whom he always supported.
- Reproductive Rights.Promised to strengthen the landmark legislation, which has come under the scanner after confirmation of Supreme Court Judge Am Coney.
Biden has laid out plans for reversing US withdrawals from international bodies, revoking harmful policies, ending “forever wars,” (Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates the taxpayer bill for post-9/11 US wars at almost $6 trillion[iv], more than 60,000 killed or wounded since 9/11) and restoring alliances.
Biden has also pledged to prioritize the fight against climate change, outside of addressing the pandemic and its fallout, the most urgent problem for every nation in the world. He wants America to get back its reputation for ‘academic excellence’ and recreate their special place in the global imagination, by lowering the visa hurdles for study in the United States while creating better, more accessible pathways for international students to work in the United States after graduation which can pay both short and long-term dividends in expanding U.S. influence.
Debates among Americans over how the United States should engage with other countries in a post-Trump era have led to valid questions about whether it can conceivably regain the trust needed to lead again. Biden will return the United States to the Paris climate accord, the World Health Organization, and (if the right terms can be secured) the Iran nuclear deal. He has said that his administration will reengage in a variety of international forums and initiatives that Trump abandoned, such as the UN Human Rights Council and the Global Compact for Migration. He has vowed to end the destructive policies of the Trump administration, such as the travel ban on Muslim-majority nations, the slashing of U.S. refugee numbers to historic lows, family separations at the southern border, the berating of allies, and the embrace of authoritarian leaders. And he has promised to draw on the deep ties he has built over four decades of work in foreign policy to convince countries in Asia and Europe that Washington can once again be counted on as an ally.
Defence in Depth and Back to International Alliances and Allies Echoing Biden’s thoughts in a manner, Jim Mattis in an article in Foreign Affairs[v] recently stated that protecting the United States requires a strategy of ‘defence in depth’, of identifying and dealing with global problems where they occur rather than waiting for threats. To achieve defence in depth, simply strengthening the U.S. military is not enough; nor the even more urgent task of strengthening US diplomacy and other civilian elements of national power. Enhancing national security must start with the fundamental truth that the United States cannot protect itself or its interests without the help of others. This is of special significance to India, further cemented by the US Congress officially passing the US$740 billion defence policy bill, which among other things include calling out Chinese aggression against India along the LAC.
As capable as the US military is, the United States’ principal adversaries are more constrained by its network of alliances than by its military might. Failing to invest and cooperate with allies and partners to shape the international environment risks erosion of this network. As a double whammy, apart from losing friends, it could result in the emergence of other, competing networks, presaging an international order from which the United States is excluded, unable to influence outcomes because it is simply not present. In practice, “America first” has meant “America alone.” This trend has already manifested but thanks to Chinese misadventures the tide can be reversed, and herein lies an opportunity for Biden.
Cooperative Security is the Trump Card: Key to Enhanced Indian Strategic Space
Sovereign countries always have choices: To compromise with aggressors (China, Russia), take actions opposed to US interests, stay neutral, or cooperate with one another on activities from which the United States is excluded. Not even the US is strong enough to protect itself on its own. Cooperating with like-minded nations to sustain an international order of mutual security and prosperity is a cost-effective way of securing that help. US must resist the temptation to maximize US gains at the expense of countries that share its objectives and instead utilizing the powers of influence and inspiration to enlarge the group of countries that work with the United States to a common purpose.
Defence resources cannot substitute for the many non-military elements that go into national security: diplomacy, trade, alliances, economic incentives, educational pathways, crisis leadership during pandemics, disasters et al. US should not press countries to choose outright between the two powers. A “with us or against us” approach plays to China’s advantage, because the economic prosperity of US allies and partners hinges on strong trade and investment relationships with Beijing [vi].
Under Biden, the world expects US to moderate its stance towards China, but due to strategic compulsions and bi-partisan hostility he would be compelled to continue actions to temper Chinese global ambitions. India, an acknowledged growing power with its unique approach, geography (dominates Indian Ocean Region, significant influence in the Indo-Pacific, and contiguous to China) and history of strategic autonomy, enjoys tremendous soft power which must be exploited to its national advantage.
Biden and India
Some sections within India, seem convinced that a Biden presidency bodes ill for India. Their misgivings, it appears, stem from some adverse comments that both Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, have made about the state of human rights in J&K, nationalist agenda (Hindu in their perception), CAA and NCR which seeks to move the country away from its secular founding ideals, quoting India’s ‘long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multiethnic and multi-religious democracy’[vii].
Real Politik will Ultimately Prevail
Under Biden, a multi-faceted, potentially more favourable relationship specially in trade policies for India will emerge, as predicted by UBS Global Research. This should boost investors’ sentiment and push up markets after an initial hiccup. His approach will be more predictable and stable, suiting our diplomatic, political and bureaucratic culture. In all likelihood he would involve India in US withdrawal from Afghanistan to ensure regional stability rather than implement it unilaterally. At other levels too, things will get better.
Biden is expected to have a technocrat/core-specialists dominated administration, recognized practices will make a comeback, state-level ties will be more predictable, and India’s importance as a strategic counter to China in the Indo-Pacific will be re-affirmed. The flip side is that Biden may try and roll back tensions with China even if the ties will still be prickly. Washington may be less aggressive with China’s expanded influence in Asia which could moderate and reduce support to India. Pakistan, India’s implacable foe, will continue to be important to the US owing to the endgame in Afghanistan. Being moderates they may feel compelled to voice dissenting notes against PM Modi’s brand of nationalism and perceived ‘Hindutva’ card. However, geo-strategic interests, India’s size, population and markets could trump ethical considerations. Biden most importantly has promised to work with India to combat terrorism (without naming Pakistan) and prevent China from threatening its neighbours [viii].
India-China-USA Relations: Strategic Dilemma for India
Both US and India will have an adversarial/ confrontationist relation with China for some time to come due to their own obvious geo-strategic compulsions. India faces a ‘strategic dilemma’; it can align with USA as a strategic partner; it can retain strategic autonomy and join hands on a case to case basis (this could lead to a lose-lose situation in today’s environment); or can cooperate/acquiesce with/to China with obvious adverse fallouts in the international geo-political arena. Both China and USA in their own interest want India on their side (one within a liberal democratic mode while the other in an illiberal unequal order)[ix]. Currently India is rapidly improving its strategic and military relations with USA and its allies, without aligning permanently, keeping options open. Time only can tell if the road chosen, was a geo-politically prudent one.
India is too big to ignore or annoy, and nations and leaders globally sense its inevitable rise as a global ‘Balancing Power’. Both Trump and Xi have a strategic necessity to engage with India; USA to balance China as a like-minded democratic ally; and China feels the need to contain India since it perceives her to be the only real challenger to Chinese hegemony in Asia. Interestingly and happily, the future relations with USA depends on India, and how India wants to geo-politically balance the global equations or align on one side of the emerging bi-polar/multi-polar world.
[i] ‘Echo Chamber Effect’: a room with sound-reflecting walls used for producing hollow or echoing sound effects —often used figuratively: Living in a kind of echo chamber of their own opinions, they pay attention to information that fits their conclusions and ignore information that does not.
[viii] In Biden’s outreach to Indian Americans, a clear reference to Chinese aggression and Pak’ by Yashwant Raj for Hindustan Times, 25 Oct 20, Biden also wrote in an Op-Ed in India West, a news publication focused on the Indian diaspora.