Joe Biden may not go belligerent on China like Donald Trump but won't abandon America’s hard stance on Beijing

Bhopinder Singh
·6-min read

China has replaced Pakistan as India's most pressing urgency in the national consciousness, therefore Delhi's diplomatic relations with any nation is prismed through the perceived equation of the said country, with China. In an era of mindful coalescing, India has evolved from the exclusivism of Non-Aligned-Russian moorings to gravitate towards the 'Free World', which is traditionally fronted by the policies and initiatives of the US.

The reorientation of India's great-power diplomacy is running parallel to China's growing global assertion, discordance and distance with the US. The earlier Obama-Biden administration had envisaged these geostrategic and tectonic inevitabilities in their recalibrated 'Pivot to Asia' conceptualisation where India emerged as the default centrepiece of the future calculus.

However, the recently concluded Trump era was typified with schizophrenic policies that were high on optics, theatrics and din. However, the Trump dispensation essentially walked the same direction of the previous administration, albeit, inconsistently aggressively or passively, depending on the whimsical mood swings within the White House. Now, the impending change of guard with the 46th POTUS preparing to take over, has raised simplistic concerns about the ability of Joe Biden to 'match the pressure' on Beijing, as supposedly exerted earlier by Donald Trump.

Reality is, international diplomacy is substantially about sovereign 'interests' and not the personalities involved, beyond a point. Certainly, domestic politics and the aspired public persona of the leadership concerned plays a role in shaping the phraseology and tenor of the bilateral relationship. However, the pre-decided set pieces of the geopolitical chessboard define the overall direction and tensions.

China's continued rise, hegemonic ambitions and intruding footprint at the cost of American interests has already underlined a fearfully competitive and protectionist instinct that manifested in both the Obama and Trump tenures -- albeit, with more belligerent optics that matched Donald Trump's 'muscular' self-envisaging. Beyond Trump's bluster, the Chinese felt the first significant push back from the Obama regime's strategic shift 'Pivot to Asia' that unequivocally and unabashedly sought to contain the Chinese threat, though Obama maintained the decorum and pretences of diplomatic civility whilst pursuing it, unlike the show-biz rants accompanying Trump's trade wars.

Therefore, Donald Trump's unconvincing and dramaturgical campaign that an electoral victory for Joe Biden would tantamount to China 'winning' and to 'own America', was part of the simplistic narrative building. But Joe Biden was not found lacking in competitive rhetoric against China by calling Xi Jinping a 'thug' or promising to 'pressure, isolate and punish China', in his campaign spiel.

Truth is, beyond the veneer of political rhetoric, the die is already cast for Biden on China. More pertinently for India, with the backdrop of the emerging 'Quad' and the possible metamorphoses to 'Pivot to Asia 2.0' (given that Version 1.0 happened earlier with Obama-Biden duo), Biden's statement, 'The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China', is freighted with consequences for India.

Indeed, the thunderous but hollow 'boom' of Trump's accusative language on China that resonates and excites cadres in the 'redneck' region of the United States or in the 'cow belt' of India may be missing hereinafter, but that does not change matters, substantially. Put simply, with the ensuing trade-wars, COVID sentiments, socio-economic inevitability and the incalculable sovereign pride at stake, Joe Biden simply cannot go-easy on China.

Though strategy, predictability and multilateralism are expected to replace fanciful brags that have more impact on galvanising 'internal constituents', as opposed to making any meaningful change in the conflict zones. On the flip side, Biden's partisan instincts will certainly entail a more 'questioning' mode on Delhi's sincerity towards its constitutional commitment on issues like liberality, human rights etc. But that does not equate to diminishing India's concerns or role on China or Pakistan -- that is a separate context of ideological instinct, that needs to be differentiated and managed.

Therefore, both Biden-Kamala had voiced concerns on the handling of internal issues like NRC, CAA, Kashmir etc., to the expected discomfiture of Delhi, though none of that materially questioned India's long-held position on its territorial claims or its constitutional spirit.

Even the puerile assumption that a Republican dispensation is always more 'pro-India' than a Democrat dispensation, often short-sells full history and domestic compulsions. It was the Republican George Bush administration that had enforced the visa ban on the then-chief minister Narendra Modi which was later revoked by the Democratic Party's Barack Obama regime.

Also, the pathbreaking Indo-US Nuclear Civilian Agreement was opposed by the BJP government, and it voted against the same in Parliament. Too much should not be read into the two illustrated examples, as neither can be extrapolated to suggest permanency of approach as it is always topical motivations and compulsions that guide the circumstantial narrative.

Therefore, even the US's transfer to sensitive military equipment, technology or other related security wherewithal to India, does not get jeopardised as is superficially assumed -- it will still make strategic, diplomatic and commercial sense. If anything, the chances of India freeing up its coerced hand in regionally sensitive places like Iran could get a much-needed breather and elbowroom.

There is an overarching consensus on the primacy, unreliability, intent and danger emanating from China. Importantly, this sentiment would extend to China's growing machinations and to its extended arm in Pakistan, especially for Biden, under whose watch as the vice president, Osama Bin Laden was 'taken out' in Pakistan, establishing Islamabad's incorrigible duplicitousness.

The new incumbent may not fire out midnight tweets accusing either Beijing or Islamabad directly for their misdemeanours, but the increased moral heft within the White House may actually ensure fewer U-turns on policies e.g. unilaterally re-courting Taliban or offering vacuous platitudes likes 'willing and able' to 'mediate' during the Indo-Sino hostilities. There will perhaps be more talk of 'engagement' and 'reconciliation' within the region which may inadvertently suggest passivity or neutrality towards Indian interests as Biden is the practitioner of old fashioned diplomatese. Yet it could also lead to more sustainably strategic, binding and efficacious convergence of 'interests', that are always more material than the claimed 'shock and awe' of a Donald Trump.

The challenge for Indian diplomacy would be to shed its traditional shyness towards China and step-up and showcase its multi-dimensional potential as a moral, irreplaceable and foremost element in the possible 'Pivot to Asia 2.0'. Too much is being made of the personality change in the White House, even though international politics, diplomacy and alliances have a necessity, logicality and 'bind' that is beyond personality cults, histrionics and statements. China is and will remain a US fixation, and within that, India is and will remain a central piece -- this needs to be understood beyond compulsions and issues arising out of personalities, domestic politics or ideological dissonances.

The author is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry.

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