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Biden's Asia policy: Will India be able to cultivate its proximity with Washington?

New Delhi also needs to recognize that the rules of diplomacy are changing and that country, especially the US under Biden, would not hesitate to make remarks about human rights violations or on communal tensions and certainly, the changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir. None of these would qualify, for Biden’s Administration, as being ‘internal matters,’ writes Amb Amit Dasgupta (retd) for South Asia Monitor

Amb Amit Dasgupta (retd) Dec 17, 2020

Joe Biden will be the 46th US president. But his coming four years in office are likely to be turbulent. No former US president has faced such a situation. That, in itself, would be a major part of Biden’s legacy. 

An array of domestic issues and serious external challenges will preoccupy the Biden Administration alongside a strident and combative predecessor, who has the time, the energy, the money and, more importantly, the support of around 74 million Americans. This is, assuredly, a complex and divisive terrain to navigate. 

To Biden’s credit, he has, so far, maintained his composure and refrained from being drawn into a slugfest with President Donald Trump. He has focused on the job at hand and carefully gone about picking his cabinet colleagues and key advisors. But, he is also acutely mindful that Trump is the last person to simply fade away and would do everything in his power to discredit the Biden presidency. 

A divided America

Despite confirmation of Biden’s victory by the electoral college, allegations of electoral fraud are not likely to cease but they are the least of Biden’s worries. The courts have already rejected allegations by Trump and his supporters that the elections were ‘farcical,’ ‘rigged’ or ‘stolen’. Interestingly, Rudi Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, went a dramatic step further alleging a George Soros-Venezuelan conspiracy to tamper with election software and thereby hand the election to Biden. 

Biden is aware that Trump continues to enjoy the support of those who voted for him, including evangelicals, who firmly believe he is chosen by God to lead America. For them, his departure from the White House is the result of a sinister and deep-rooted satanic conspiracy. 
Biden knows that what he faces are sharply divided Americans in a nation that is fractured and has lost faith in itself. A prevailing sense of hate, fear, and gloom appears to have enveloped Americans. According to a study, 66 percent of Americans believe the US is in decline; 82 percent of Biden supporters believe Trump is taking the US to a dictatorship; while 92 percent of Trump voters believe Biden will convert the US into a socialist and left-leaning country. 

American columnist David Brooks believes there is a political and cultural-divide civil war confronting America. Winning the trust of all Americans would be his biggest challenge. This explains why, starting from his victory speech, Biden repeatedly emphasized that he and his Administration would work for all Americans. Inclusiveness would be the defining characteristic of his presidency. For this to genuinely happen, Biden needs to emerge as the great healer, who touches hearts and minds across the US.  

This is easier said than done. For Trump, nothing would be off the table and his singular focus would be to discredit Biden and his Administration, even if this means launching personal attacks. Biden is also aware that there are deep misgiving and distrust among Trump’s supporters, as to what Biden stands for and this is precisely what Trump would exploit to his advantage. 

The real problem that Biden faces is that Trump and his supporters genuinely believe that Biden and the Democrats are misleading Americans. Trump’s supporters endorse Trump’s anti-immigrant views to make American great again. Building a wall to keep Mexicans out, an expanded role for homeland security, tighter immigration policies, including on H1B visas, are all part of this grand scheme. His supporters also reject the pandemic and health protocols as being an unwarranted imposition. 

Furthermore, they do not believe climate change to be a reality. All of this is anathema to Biden, who is pro-immigrant and has also said, among his first priorities, would be combating the pandemic and having a clear roadmap to participate in the global climate change efforts.  

Biden also recognizes that the merciless killing of George Floyd by a white police officer was not an aberration but a reflection of the deep-rooted systemic racism that continues to exist, even thrive, in the US but had remained largely dormant. The spontaneous outpouring of Black Lives Matter made Biden vow that this would, certainly, is yet another priority area during his presidency. 

An extraordinary crisis confronts America.  The task that Biden has chalked up for his presidency is bold, ambitious, far-reaching, and challenging. How or whether he succeeds in winning over 74 million Trump supporters, who believe that he was right, would define his presidency and his legacy. He knows that there are many who might comment otherwise that Trump’s defeat did translate into a Biden victory.
What does it mean? 

What we do know is that Biden would be focusing on domestic issues because to not do so would set Americans and the US further adrift. 

Consequently, what concerns the global community is whether the US has played the role of a global leader, since World War Two, is going to become insular and inward-looking and thereby, herald a shift in the balance of global power in favor of China. This would be deeply disconcerting for many, given misgivings about China’s hegemonic intentions, it's aggressive posturing, and a complete distrust of Beijing’s intentions truly are. Indeed, any hint of the US vacating space or accommodating China could cause global chaos and even, conflict. 

Despite strong credentials in the US Foreign Affairs Committee, including as chairperson, Biden is likely to rely on trusted and professionally competent advisors on the eternal challenges that confront the US. He knows fully well that Beijing is looking at a larger role for itself in global affairs and that many of Washington’s allies feel threatened by this.

He is also acutely aware that the South China Seas issues, the dispute with Japan, human rights abuses in China and in Hong Kong, threats against Taiwan, the economic arm twisting as a foreign policy strategy, border incursions with India, cyber hacking and crime, intellectual property violations, and much else also directly impact and threaten the US’s vital and key strategic objectives. Consequently, while he would rely on his key advisors to engage Beijing, he is not likely to relegate these as non-issues. 

Asia policy

Biden would, certainly, see US engagement and involvement in an Asia policy, where China holds centrality but engagement with Japan and South and East Asia would, simultaneously, hold center stage. India is not likely to, immediately, be part of Biden's Asia policy and would fall into a different bracket altogether. While there is bipartisan support for a closer and strategically held partnership between the US and India, New Delhi tends to overplay the bipartisan-support card. Washington is likely to be more restrained, as India has little to offer. Economic considerations will outride political synergies and the US would want to see the greater opening of Indian markets to American business to allow for a robust and meaningful relationship to be sustainable.

How far New Delhi would be willing to go remains to be seen but if New Delhi wishes to cultivate and nurture its ‘proximity’ with Washington, trade and investment would be the key. New Delhi also needs to recognize that the rules of diplomacy are changing and that country, especially the US under Biden, would not hesitate to make remarks about human rights violations or on communal tensions and certainly, the changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir. None of these would qualify, for Biden’s Administration, as being ‘internal matters.’ 

It would be credible to assume, therefore, that Biden would be more like a ‘traditional’ president focusing on domestic issues, relying on insights from his cabinet, and stepping in only when there is an impasse that requires presidential intervention. He is also like to be far more moderate in his dealings and consequently, far more predictable compared to his predecessor. At the same time, he knows that if he is to win the confidence of Trump supporters, he has to let Beijing know that he is well and truly happy to play hardball if that is needed. 

To that extent, Biden will use soft hands but not fail to deliver a hard punch, if pushed to do so.

The presidency would, nonetheless, be turbulent. Biden knows this. But his composure and demeanor suggest that he is prepared for the long haul. If he is able to take care of his health, I would wager that Biden would surprise skeptics and possibly emerge as the president that not only Americans needed but the world at large. 

(The writer, a former Indian diplomat, is a Distinguished Fellow Australia India Institute. The views expressed are personal)

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