Will Joe Biden remain proactive on New Delhi’s border challenge from Beijing?
US President Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States at a time when strategic partners New Delhi and Washington are both wrestling with internal issues of their own.
For Biden, it is more than just a pledge to restore the “soul of America” scarred by the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill by the far-right. He not only has to battle the Covid-19 pandemic but also plug America back into the global order, especially on its commitment to fighting climate change.
Biden is a longstanding friend of India and has advocated deeper ties between the two democracies. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001, he pushed for India to be taken off the list of sanctions, and in 2008 helped steer the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement through the upper house.
A friend certainly, but someone who could be terribly distracted by internal issues.
India is not only battling an economic contraction but also a protracted face-off with China on its borders and, more worryingly, a strategic nexus between Beijing and Islamabad. This has resulted in its armed forces being on an extended period of alertness on both fronts ever since the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) made incursions into Ladakh last May.
The Donald Trump administration, which unequivocally backed India on the Ladakh standoff, outlined its priorities in a recently declassified National Security Council (NSC) memo, the ‘US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific’. ‘A strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China,’ the note stated.
The US would support India through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels to help address continental challenges, such as the border dispute with China and access to water, including from the Brahmaputra and other rivers being diverted by China.
There is, of course, the Trumpian dichotomy-strategic relations flourished, but the two countries battled over trade and imposed tariffs on bilateral exports.
Biden was vice-president in the Barack Obama administration, which also used the policy of counterbalancing China with India, but more subtly. How assertive Biden will be on China vis-à-vis India remains to be seen.
Over half the respondents in the latest India Today Mood of the Nation (MOTN) poll believe Biden will be good for India. The optics of his team, which banks on an unprecedented number of Indian-Americans, is certainly astonishing. Kamala Harris is the first person of Indian origin and African-American to be US vice-president.
Twenty other Indian-Americans are set to get key roles, 17 of them in the White House.India’s border challenge from China is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
Eight rounds of talks have failed to break the logjam in Ladakh, where about 100,000 Indian and Chinese troops remained deployed through a brutal winter. About 57 per cent of MOTN respondents said negotiations were the way forward to resolve the crisis.
This is diametrically opposite to the August 2020 MOTN, when 59 per cent favoured war. A high 59 per cent felt India has given a befitting reply to China (since the standoff), though it’s a 10 percentage point dip from the August 2020 MOTN. About 64 per cent believe the Narendra Modi government had presented a clear picture on the Chinese aggression.