Under Joe Biden, a return to professional diplomacy with India
Under the current secretary of state, Antony Blinken, the US is more likely to play the role of a firefighter, rather than that of an arsonist. That does not, however, mean Washington will be blind to potential Chinese aggression
India, United States (US), Japan and Australia came together for the Quad summit on March 12, 2021, hosted by US president Joe Biden. This was the first interaction between Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden in a multilateral forum since the change of power in Washington earlier this year, though they have spoken on the phone since Biden took over.
In the past two decades, bilateral relations have grown under successive Democratic and Republican administrations, with the two countries cooperating on a wide range of areas, from trade, commerce and technology to defence and terrorism. The two have also been working together on several multilateral forums. In recent years, Quad has come to be seen as a platform that will serve as a counterweight to China. In fact, the Donald Trump administration had even floated the idea of an Asian NATO.
Some in India, who have been increasingly worried about the Chinese border transgressions in recent years, may have been hoping for Quad to become just that. Biden’s participation in last Friday’s summit signals that his administration does indeed see strategic potential in Quad.
However, judging by the remarks delivered by Biden and the other leaders at the summit, it is clear that Quad will serve as a multi-dimensional forum that will address myriad topics from economic growth to health care, but not as a military alliance.
There are already signs that ties are moving back to the old days of being channelled through institutions and processes. Biden is a firm believer in ironing out differences and cementing ties through multilateral forums and bilateral institutional co-operation. So, we will see a sharp departure from the presidentially-centred diplomacy that was the hallmark of the Trump White House. But, that does not mean Biden will not forge a good working relationship with Modi.
During the campaign, there were concerns among some in India about Biden because of his criticism of India on issues such as Kashmir and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). Many were also worried whether Modi’s relationship with Trump, especially the two campaign-style rallies where they made join appearances in Houston and Ahmedabad, would hamstring New Delhi when dealing with Biden. While we are likely to hear US concerns on Kashmir and CAA, they are not going to be deal-breakers.
Another issue that pundits in both countries have been keeping a close eye on is, of course, China. Beijing has been a factor in US-India bilateral relations since the early 2000s, when China arrived as an economic power and its spectacular rise on the world stage began. Some Indian analysts have suggested that the recent military disengagement by both New Delhi and Beijing would not have taken place if then secretary of state Mike Pompeo were still in office because of his continuous attempts to insert himself into the India-China dispute.
Under the current secretary of state, Antony Blinken, the US is more likely to play the role of a firefighter, rather than that of an arsonist. That does not, however, mean Washington will be blind to potential Chinese aggression.
Even though the Quad summit and the readout of the Modi-Biden call did not mention China, they both emphasised the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific. It means China will remain a factor in India-US relations, but not in the way anti-China hawks in Washington and New Delhi envisaged during the Trump administration.
Biden understands geopolitics better than most other heads of state, having served in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for decades. He has more India expertise than any previous president, which will only be a good thing for bilateral relations. But it’s not Biden’s experience and expertise alone that will count.
It will equally be the extensive experience and expertise of others whom he will bring to the table to meet with their Indian counterparts to work collaboratively to construct policy positions that will work to the benefit of both nations and the world.
Frank F Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington DC
The views expressed are personal
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