US vows to deepen India partnership against China dangers; no zero-sum proposition vis-a-vis Pakistan

Biden is having to deal with the geopolitical realities of the rising threat from China and has to have India as a strategic asset for meeting the challenge, writes Arul Louis for South Asia Monitor 

Arul Louis Mar 04, 2021

Sounding a high alert about the growing dangers to the international system from an assertive China, President Joe Biden has called for building alliances with like-minded countries and said the US will deepen its ties with India.

The Interim National Security Guidance he released on Wednesday singled out China as the only “competitor” capable of mounting a sustained challenge with its multifarious capabilities to the international order.

He said in the document that the US will support China’s neighbors and declared, “We will deepen our partnership with India.”

Introducing the document, he said it would “convey my vision for how America will engage with the world” and guide his administration while Washington begins work on a new National Security Strategy.

He sketched a vision of a cooperative of democracies to face China, which “has rapidly become more assertive.”

He called Beijing “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”

To counter this as well as the challenge from Russia, the US will have to “promote a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions,” he said.

“We can do none of this work alone. For that reason, we will reinvigorate and modernise our alliances and partnerships around the world,” he said.

“Our democratic alliances enable us to present a common front, produce a unified vision, and pool our strength to promote high standards, establish effective international rules, and hold countries like China to account,” he said.

Envisaging the framework for the alliance of democracies to face the China challenge, he said, “Beyond our core alliances, we will also double down on building partnerships throughout the world, because our strength is multiplied when we combine efforts to address common challenges, share costs, and widen the circle of cooperation.”

Biden drew attention to the risk from China's “One Belt, One Road” initiative that seeks to bring countries around the world, especially developing nations, under its economic dominance.

To counter this Chinese project, he said, “We will support China’s neighbors and commercial partners in defending their rights to make independent political choices free of coercion or undue foreign influence. We will promote locally-led development to combat the manipulation of local priorities.”

China has set debt traps by making loans to countries for infrastructure projects that they cannot pay back in the long term and then has sought to take control of them.

Biden also said, “Terrorism and violent extremism, both domestic and international, remain significant threats.”

At its core, though, the guidance is his own version of a kinder, gentler America First that seeks to strengthen the US the unparalleled world leader.

“America is back. Diplomacy is back. Alliances are back. But we are not looking back,” he said.

“The United States must lead by the power of our example, and that will require hard work at home – to fortify the founding pillars of our democracy, to truly address systemic racism, and to live up to our promise as a nation of immigrants,” he said.

“Our success will be a beacon to other democracies, whose freedom is intertwined with our own security, prosperity, and way of life.”

'America will lead the world'

Earlier on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined the Biden administration's foreign policy emphasising “that American leadership and engagement matter.”

In his address on “Foreign Policy for the American People,” he said, “Whether we like it or not, the world does not organise itself. When the US pulls back, one of two things is likely to happen: either another country tries to take our place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values; or, maybe just as bad, no one steps up, and then we get chaos and all the dangers it creates. Either way, that’s not good for America.”

He also portrayed China as the main challenge to the US and world and stressed building alliances to meet it.

No zero-sum game

Describing the US engagement with India as a “global comprehensive strategic partnership,” the State Department had earlier reiterated Washington's policy of a de-hyphenated relationship with India and Pakistan, saying it is “not a zero-sum” game. 

Speaking of the US relations with the two neighbours, US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price on Wednesday made a distinction between the global dimension of its partnership with New Delhi and its shared regional interests with Islamabad.

“When it comes to India, we have a global comprehensive strategic partnership,” he said.

The importance of the partnership has risen as the challenge from an increasingly hostile China has grown.

With Islamabad, “we have important shared interests in the region. And we will continue to work closely with the Pakistani authorities on those shared interests,”  Price said.

The US needs Islamabad's help to deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan if the President Joe Biden is to go ahead with the deal his predecessor Donald Trump made with the insurgent group to withdraw all US troops on May 1.

As its patron and leadership refuge, Pakistan wields influence over the Taliban. On the other hand, Islamabad is also closely aligned with Beijing at a time when Washington is challenged on the global stage by an aggressive China.

“United States has important relationships with India, as I said, but also with Pakistan. These relationships stand on their own in our view. They are not a zero-sum proposition when it comes to US foreign policy,” he said replying to a question at his daily briefing on Washington's relations with the two neighbours in South Asia. 

He added that the US has “productive and constructive relationships with one does not detract from the relationship we have at the other. It does not come at the expense at the relationship we have with the other.”

Referring to the strategic ties with India, he said, “This (fiscal) year, the United States has authorized over $20 billion in defence sales to India. It’s these offers of advanced US defense platforms that demonstrate our commitment to India’s security and sovereignty. It demonstrates our commitment to that global, comprehensive, strategic partnership.”

'Kashmir is Union Territory'

On Kashmir, Price said, “We welcome steps to return the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir to full economic and political normalcy consistent with India’s democratic values.”

He said that “certainly as the State Department, we continue to follow developments in Jammu and Kashmir closely” and the US policy “when it comes to it has not changed.”

However, there may be a nuance in his reference to Jammu and Kashmir as a "union territory." 

A reporter asked if for Washington Kashmir was not “controversial anymore,” if it wanted a reversal of the revocation of Article 370 of the Constitution, and if it considered Kashmir India's territory or a “disputed territory.”

Price did not engage the reporter on those questions directly and only said, “What we have done is we continue to support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and other areas of – and other issues of concern. Of course, we’ve continued to call for a reduction of tensions along the line of control, returning to that 2003 ceasefire.”

In August 2019, India rescinded Article 370 of the Indian constitution which gave Kashmir special status and downgraded it to a Union territory.

Asked by the reporter if Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had raised the Kashmir issue with India's External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Price said, “We issued a readout of that call, so I would refer you to the readout of that conversation.”

When the reporter said the readout did not mention Kashmir, Price said, “I wouldn’t want to go beyond the readout.”

Blinken had spoken with Jaishankar twice directly -- on January 29 and February 9 – and once along with the other two foreign ministers of the Quad, Japan's Toshimitsu Motegi and Australia's Marise Payne – on February 18.

None of the three readouts mention Kashmir.

During the election campaign last year, Biden had communalised the Kashmir issue by adding it in his “Agenda for Muslim Americans.”

The manifesto appealing to them said, “In Kashmir, the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir. Restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the Internet, weaken democracy.”

But once in office, Biden is having to deal with the geopolitical realities of the rising threat from China and has to have India as a strategic asset for meeting the challenge.

While speaking about US efforts to bring back democracy in Myanmar, Price called India a “key partner” in the Indo-Pacific region and said Blinken had discussed the situation in that neighbour of India with Jaishankar.

“India and Japan are key partners in the Indo-Pacific and key partners that we will continue to work with towards our collective goal of seeking a restoration of Burma’s democratically elected civilian government,” he said.

(The author a New York-based journalist, is a non-resident Senior Fellow of the Society for Policy Studies)

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