Wednesday, 25 May, 2022
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India should expect greater US scrutiny of domestic issues, if Biden’s speech was any clue

Both on climate change and multilateral trade, India could come under pressure from the US. And let’s not forget Biden’s stress on democratic values.

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In a major speech at the State Department last week, US President Joe Biden set out his foreign policy agenda in considerable detail. The speech bears careful attention because it indicates the priorities of this administration. One may note that there is not a single mention of India. The Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quad as means of dealing with the China challenge are also missing.

This confirms the assessment that India may not be as key a partner for the US under Biden as it appeared to be under the Donald Trump administration. The omission is even more telling since this administration has several top professionals who are familiar with India and have had intensive dealings with it during earlier Democratic administrations. One cannot argue that there are no India hands in the administration. We may need to work harder to sustain and further develop the Indo-US partnership now.

Biden laid stress on reviving alliance relationships describing them as “our greatest asset”. He added the phrase “key partners” in the next sentence but gave no indication as to which countries are covered in this generic category. In the Indo-Pacific, the US is likely to give precedence to its military allies, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

There is acknowledgement of the adversarial relations with China and Russia but the early extension of the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement for another five years reflects the willingness to remain engaged with Russia at a high-level despite sharp points of divergence. The same approach will likely follow with China. Biden said clearly that on issues that are important to US interests, it will engage with China, and climate change will offer the entry point for resuming high-level engagement. But the US-China confrontation will remain part of the geopolitical landscape. The subsequent phone conversation between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi demonstrated mutual antipathy in abundant measure.

Also read: Modi, Biden agree on Indo-Pacific but not so much on Quad, democratic values & Myanmar

Climate, trade and democracy

There are two other noteworthy themes.

One, the US will play a much more active role on the multilateral front. This is reflected in the return to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the resumption of membership of the World Health Organization (WHO) and a move to rejoin the UN Human Rights Commission. One should expect activism at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in concert with the European Union and Japan. The US may drop its opposition to the WTO Appellate Body by allowing fresh appointments of the judges. It may no longer oppose the new director general whose appointment Trump had held up. We did not see any indication of Biden’s interest in rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership or reviving negotiations on a trans-Atlantic trade agreement. There continues to be caution on this front even as the WTO emerges as the forum where trade and investment issues may be negotiated.

Both on climate change and multilateral trade issues, India could come under pressure. Biden obviously expects to leverage the US return to the Paris Agreement to pressure “major emitters” to come up with more ambitious emission reduction commitments. India is already identified as a major emitter and will be expected to commit to achieving carbon neutrality at least not later than China (2060). On WTO, there is a long-standing record of bitter divergences on several key issues. Unless both US and India make a major effort to manage these points of conflict other more positive aspects of relations may be impacted.

The Biden speech is also notable for its stress on democratic values and human rights as guiding principles of American diplomacy. He declared that “we must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values; defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” There followed a long paragraph on the recent developments in Myanmar and the expectation that friends and allies will join the US in demanding restoration of the democratically elected government. India may not be able to oblige given its equities in Myanmar.

We should expect greater scrutiny of domestic developments in India itself. We are witnessing some of the likely strains on relations thanks to comments in the US Congress on the ongoing farmers’ protests. There is an assumption that the US administration may remain muted on these issues given the importance of India’s role in the Indo-Pacific strategy. The Biden speech heralds a more difficult challenge on this score.

The initial moves on India’s western flank are encouraging. The US has changed its policy on Yemen. It could well engineer its return to the Iran nuclear deal. Here its allies and its adversaries, China and Russia, have a vested interest in facilitating the revival of the agreement. They will do the heavy lifting. This would be good for India.

One should expect the Indo-US partnership on defence and counter-terrorism to remain strong. Despite Biden having neglected to mention it, India’s role in maritime security and in the Quad remains indispensable.

Also read: World is warming up to China for trade. But India is left with just a handful of minilaterals

Working harder on ties

One is unable to see the likelihood of Prime Minister Modi and Biden developing the kind of personal chemistry that was evident both with Obama and more so with Trump.

Biden has announced that he would convene a summit of democracies, and India will certainly be invited. The date is uncertain. Perhaps before that, there would be a G-7 summit hosted by the UK Prime Minister to which PM Modi is invited. That could be an occasion for a meeting with Biden and for putting in place a positive and constructive trajectory for Indo-US relations. The democratic connection had helped us in clinching the Indo-US nuclear deal. President George Bush, like Biden, was personally invested in promoting democratic values. India and the US had together launched the UN Democracy Fund in September 2005. Perhaps we need to revive this initiative at this juncture.

The bottom line: Strengthening the Indo-US partnership under Biden may require more hard work than one may have anticipated.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow CPR. Views are personal.

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  1. The “New India” which is not bothering about S-400 sanctions, how the author can imagine that there is a 1% impact from the interference of the USA?
    It is pitiful to see that international pressure which once the USA have is no more functional in India’s internal matter.

  2. hahaha delusional author of the article still stuck in CONregressi fantasy. He does not understand norms of international diplomacy that interference in India’s internal matters is none of USA’s business, nor is India and its think tanks which advise the govt are run by leftist pesudosecularist who appease islamists and western world. West and USA need India more than India needs them, as market, as young and cost effective service provider, its the only nation left in the world wjich is large, democratic, has native culture and dharmic religions which are NOT predatory supremacist violent avengelical jihadist conversion machinery. India will give it back to USA if they dare to interfere as there are too many inequalities and holes within USA’s own system.

  3. India is no longer under Congress rule that it cares about US meddling in its domestic affairs. Under Modi it has become quite capable of speaking softly while wielding a big stick.

  4. The US has always had a great relationship with dictatorships be it Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or China as long as they did it’s bidding. We all know how the US used and favoured these countries. So let’s not fool ourselves here and have a short memory like the author. China built itself up when it was in the good books of the US and India needs to do the same now. Rest everything is superfluous. If the ex foreign secretary has any ideas on that he should spell them out instead of useless philosophising.

  5. US has never ever been a key ally and partner of India. Till the end of the Cold War, US was actively encouraging the rise of extremist Islam and Islamic countries with the strategic view that Muslims do not get much influenced by Communist idelology unlike other communities. After the end of the Cold War, from Clinton to Obama, the US-India relationship was skewed in favour of India exporting to the US, White Collar professionals willing to work at the tenth of the cost of a US worker. Only Donald Trump dared to go outside the traditional US government view of India and engage us as a world power capable of containing China. Mr. Biden has been elected on the platform of conserving the traditional US Cold War era worldview and cannot be expected to be as favourable towards India as President Trump was. At the end of the day it is best for India to conserve and promote its already robust ties with Moscow. At present, Russia is still India’s all-weather ally. Another promising developing alliance is with Israel. For India, till the time the Democrats are in power in the US, it makes sense to keep the US engaged and build robust all-weather alliances with Russia and Israel.

  6. Career paper pusher has happy times ahead.

    Current administration is filled with ultra left buddhujivis one of the critical skills being paper pushing.

    This was already on the cards. The gains of earlier administration will be given away mostly on economic, strategic and world forums.

    While the media is celebrating Indian American appointments in current administration, you have to understand they are ultra white and ultra American by all standards. Their belief rooted in ultra left ecosystem which by definition is bad for world’s largest democracy.

  7. The US lecturing us about democracies while having supported most, if not all of it’s “allied” dictators since WW II is the most laughable thing.

  8. Friends should bring out the best in us. Democracy is our most valuable attribute, something that provides the framework to keep such a diverse society together with a minimum of social stress and use of state force. If the US points out that a shared commitment to democracy is the bedrock on which the India – US friendship rests, there is an unmistakable message contained in that. There is no need to see it as a threat. However, if there are any grievous slippages in the democratic record, America will point them out. The restoration of 4 G in Kashmir was a very happy outcome of a respectful conversation between friends.

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