The presentation of the US Legion of Merit award to Prime Minister Narendra Modi by President Donald Trump for providing leadership to elevate the strategic partnership between the two countries is a significant step forward in India-US relations, apart from an acknowledgement of India’s rising status globally. That this award has been given to former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as well, is important, for along with the US and India, these countries comprise the informal alliance known as the Quad. This is proof of the direction American foreign policy has been taking under President Trump—where there is recognition of both the centrality of Indo-Pacific in current geopolitics, and the need to build a potential security alliance of like-minded democracies to counter the rise of a malign China. Obviously, President Trump believes that this shift in American focus from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific will be his foreign policy legacy, apart from clearly identifying which country is the biggest threat to US primacy. It is now to be seen if Joe Biden pursues a similar path once he assumes office as President on 20 January 2021, for on this will depend how the world shapes up—with or without Chinese-Communist characteristics. This is all the more important at a time when there is apprehension about Biden’s foreign policy goals, considering he is a known Atlanticist. There is already some dismay in foreign policy circles in the Indo-Pacific region over the sound-bites emanating from some of those associated with the incoming administration, as most of such talk is about the importance of US-EU partnership, even to counter China. There are also murmurs about Biden’s Cabinet picks, who are believed to have been chosen to serve the cause of identity politics rather than actual policy. For example, General Lloyd Austin (Retired), an African American, is believed to have been chosen as Defense Secretary for the purpose of having minority members in the Biden Cabinet. From all accounts, Austin’s area of expertise is the Middle East apart from Afghanistan. It is not clear how this will help the US in formulating its security strategy against China. In fact, in a commentary in the Atlantic on why he chose Austin as Defense Secretary, Biden uses words such as “Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, women, and LGBTQ service members”, thus revealing how the compulsion to “do things right”, as per the domestic “liberal” agenda, may have an impact even on his foreign policy.
The question being asked is if Biden is seeking to reset American foreign policy to Barack Obama’s time, when he was Vice President and when China was being humoured in the hope that it would be integrated into the rules-based political and economic global mainstream and thus become democratic and open. So much so that in 2012 Barack Obama did not lift a finger to defend treaty ally Philippines when China refused to withdraw from the Scarborough shoal, in spite of an agreement brokered by the US, which required both countries to vacate the shoal. But that strategy of appeasing China was a complete failure and now China is working to knock off America from its perch as the world’s leading superpower.
Interestingly, on Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sought a reset of US-China ties. While addressing business leaders from the US-China Business Council, he said, “The top priority is that both sides should work together to remove all kinds of disruptions and obstacles, and achieve a smooth transition in China-US relations.” This has to be seen along with statements coming from the US about the need for greater cooperation between US and China in areas such as space and climate change. In fact, John Kerry, Biden’s “special presidential envoy for climate”, who reports to Biden, said in an interview to ProPublica, “United States has to step up again. We have to do what President Obama licensed me to do, which was go to China, sit down with President Xi and talk about mutual interests.” Also, push is coming from multinational corporations, who are driven by profit-motive, for the US to go easy on China.
Ironically, but for the devastating coronavirus unleashed on the world by China, a reset in US-China relationship perhaps would have been possible. But with over 18 million corona cases and 3.5 lakh deaths, the mood in US is such that the US Congress picks up the Tibet issue—a red rag to China—and passes the long-delayed Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020, which identifies the Tibetans’ right to choose a new Dalai Lama, apart from talking about setting up a consulate in Lhasa. Let’s also not forget the bipartisan support for India in the US Congress over China’s aggression in Ladakh. In other words, even if Biden’s advisers want to, a reset in US-China policy may be difficult to achieve. It is now to be seen if President Biden realises that with the shift of focus to the Indo-Pacific from the Atlantic, he needs the Quad if he wants to counter China..