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The big picture is of convergence

The US clarity on China’s threat has meant a renewed commitment to the India relationship. Don’t get misled by the headlines
By Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
UPDATED ON JUL 26, 2021 05:29 PM IST
PREMIUM
Representational image. (Shutterstock)

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit will be the latest of a half-dozen high-level interactions between India and the new United States (US) administration.

Superficially, bilateral relations are marked by the minor and the messy. The haste of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, irritants in the trade and digital sphere, Congressional lectures over Russian S-400 missiles, and the state of civil rights in the Narendra Modi government dominate headlines. These problems exist, but they are marginal to the larger relationship.

Washington and New Delhi have never been geopolitically closer than today, though some gaps still need filling. The disjointed world of the pandemic means grand strategic statements are left unsaid while small frictions get amplified. Most notably, the two leaders — Modi and Joe Biden — have yet to meet face-to-face.

The drivers behind this convergence are evident in the US’s stated priorities. The most striking shift in President Biden’s worldview is his attitude towards China. Beijing has moved from being a country of interest to a clear and present danger. Two years ago, Biden was dismissive of talk that China was even a serious competitor. During his campaign, Quad received only a passing mention. Once in office, his geopolitical idee fixe is Beware the Dragon. He now talks of a world where autocracies and democracies are in mortal combat for the future of the 21st century. And the apex struggle is the US versus China.

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But the new administration does not see this as being just about carriers and missiles. Biden’s Indo-Pacific advisers note that in Chinese lore, the greatest generals are not those who defeat their enemies in pitched battle, but who defeat them without fighting. The heart of the new China response is domestic revival. Biden recognises that unless he heals the racial and class divides tearing his country apart, Donald Trump’s America First will become mainstream US thinking. China will win the eastern hemisphere by default. From this flows the need to build coalitions of the willing around technology and innovation with one common characteristic — reducing dependence on China. The administration has already issued a series of strategy papers on 5G, semiconductors, and more.

There is an acceptance that the US is no longer a hegemon, just a first among equals. Polls show that American willingness to wear the badge of globocop is at historical lows. The present US economic boom is overly dependent on foreign funds. Less than a decade ago, Washington owed the world the equivalent of 17% of its Gross Domestic Product. Today, that figure is 67%. So Biden’s team has fashioned a strategy that adjusts to these new realities.

There is a renewed emphasis on allies and partners. There is also a determination to end “forever wars” — unwinnable military commitments that leak blood, treasure, and public support but are no longer at the core of the US’s national interests. This means Afghanistan and Iraq, but also increasingly swathes of West and Central Asia. The one multilateral issue Biden is all sweet and light about is climate. “Climate is religion with the Biden team,” said one Indian official.

Take a look at the priorities here and it becomes evident why US officials refer to India as a “defining relationship”. New Delhi is a big fit with almost all of these foreign policy goals. Whatever tack the US takes to handle China, it becomes much easier with India on board. Reportedly, Washington believes India and the US will be the core of Quad for at least the next few years. At least half the techno-alliances, such as the ones in Artificial Intelligence and pharmaceuticals, become more credible with India in the mix. The US also sees India as the perfect climate partner. Not only is the world’s third-largest carbon emitter at a tipping point but Modi is even more fervent about a green transition than Biden.

The Biden foreign policy has so far found its primary opponent to be Covid-19. Washington has been as distracted by the need to jab its people as any other capital. Quad’s working groups have made minimal progress in large part because member-states have been riding out viral waves. Biden has pushed on ahead. His administration has been creating new strategic groupings, proposing summits on climate and democracy, and issuing a flurry of documents and papers. There is no certainty as to what will work, but the sense is that time is of the essence, and pushing out drafts is good enough. China, after all, is not standing still. Also the president’s “foreign policy for the middle classes” needs to get traction or else next year’s congressional elections may put the Republicans back in charge.

The result of all this haste is a certain degree of confusion in US foreign policy statements. Senior Indian officials applaud the US’s general direction regarding China, but feel there are enough voices in Washington arguing for settling with Beijing that they still question the US’s commitment to Quad. What both sides agree is that the nature of India’s polity is a footnote in the relationship. Given China’s techno-totalitarianism, the persistence of Trumpism and its Afghan abandonment, Biden represents a much more humble Washington. Which is for the better as the two countries need to talk more about cabbages and kings, and less about whether pigs have wings.

The views expressed are personal

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit will be the latest of a half-dozen high-level interactions between India and the new United States (US) administration.

Superficially, bilateral relations are marked by the minor and the messy. The haste of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, irritants in the trade and digital sphere, Congressional lectures over Russian S-400 missiles, and the state of civil rights in the Narendra Modi government dominate headlines. These problems exist, but they are marginal to the larger relationship.

Washington and New Delhi have never been geopolitically closer than today, though some gaps still need filling. The disjointed world of the pandemic means grand strategic statements are left unsaid while small frictions get amplified. Most notably, the two leaders — Modi and Joe Biden — have yet to meet face-to-face.

Also Read | US demonising China to build national purpose: Chinese diplomat

RELATED STORIES

The drivers behind this convergence are evident in the US’s stated priorities. The most striking shift in President Biden’s worldview is his attitude towards China. Beijing has moved from being a country of interest to a clear and present danger. Two years ago, Biden was dismissive of talk that China was even a serious competitor. During his campaign, Quad received only a passing mention. Once in office, his geopolitical idee fixe is Beware the Dragon. He now talks of a world where autocracies and democracies are in mortal combat for the future of the 21st century. And the apex struggle is the US versus China.

But the new administration does not see this as being just about carriers and missiles. Biden’s Indo-Pacific advisers note that in Chinese lore, the greatest generals are not those who defeat their enemies in pitched battle, but who defeat them without fighting. The heart of the new China response is domestic revival. Biden recognises that unless he heals the racial and class divides tearing his country apart, Donald Trump’s America First will become mainstream US thinking. China will win the eastern hemisphere by default. From this flows the need to build coalitions of the willing around technology and innovation with one common characteristic — reducing dependence on China. The administration has already issued a series of strategy papers on 5G, semiconductors, and more.

There is an acceptance that the US is no longer a hegemon, just a first among equals. Polls show that American willingness to wear the badge of globocop is at historical lows. The present US economic boom is overly dependent on foreign funds. Less than a decade ago, Washington owed the world the equivalent of 17% of its Gross Domestic Product. Today, that figure is 67%. So Biden’s team has fashioned a strategy that adjusts to these new realities.

There is a renewed emphasis on allies and partners. There is also a determination to end “forever wars” — unwinnable military commitments that leak blood, treasure, and public support but are no longer at the core of the US’s national interests. This means Afghanistan and Iraq, but also increasingly swathes of West and Central Asia. The one multilateral issue Biden is all sweet and light about is climate. “Climate is religion with the Biden team,” said one Indian official.

Take a look at the priorities here and it becomes evident why US officials refer to India as a “defining relationship”. New Delhi is a big fit with almost all of these foreign policy goals. Whatever tack the US takes to handle China, it becomes much easier with India on board. Reportedly, Washington believes India and the US will be the core of Quad for at least the next few years. At least half the techno-alliances, such as the ones in Artificial Intelligence and pharmaceuticals, become more credible with India in the mix. The US also sees India as the perfect climate partner. Not only is the world’s third-largest carbon emitter at a tipping point but Modi is even more fervent about a green transition than Biden.

The Biden foreign policy has so far found its primary opponent to be Covid-19. Washington has been as distracted by the need to jab its people as any other capital. Quad’s working groups have made minimal progress in large part because member-states have been riding out viral waves. Biden has pushed on ahead. His administration has been creating new strategic groupings, proposing summits on climate and democracy, and issuing a flurry of documents and papers. There is no certainty as to what will work, but the sense is that time is of the essence, and pushing out drafts is good enough. China, after all, is not standing still. Also the president’s “foreign policy for the middle classes” needs to get traction or else next year’s congressional elections may put the Republicans back in charge.

The result of all this haste is a certain degree of confusion in US foreign policy statements. Senior Indian officials applaud the US’s general direction regarding China, but feel there are enough voices in Washington arguing for settling with Beijing that they still question the US’s commitment to Quad. What both sides agree is that the nature of India’s polity is a footnote in the relationship. Given China’s techno-totalitarianism, the persistence of Trumpism and its Afghan abandonment, Biden represents a much more humble Washington. Which is for the better as the two countries need to talk more about cabbages and kings, and less about whether pigs have wings.

The views expressed are personal

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