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As Joe Biden assumes office to oversee United States strategic commitments, it’s understood that India will also make the necessary strategic adjustments.
Externally, he will take office at a time when the US is a declining power confronted by rising and resurgent powers and an absence of consensus on how nation-states should behave in such transitional times. It no longer has the will or the ability to be the world’s leading power and the US-led global economic model operative during a half-century has seen its frailties exposed by Covid-19. The US will have to adapt to the challenge hopefully under the new Presidency.
Internally, Biden must agree to a significant number of the foreign policy demands of the left-wing of the Democratic Party in order to achieve stability within government after it. He will try to do so incrementally rather than radically.
On the other hand, India may nudge him on Obama-era “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia strategy, which had set specific targets for relocating the US military away from the Middle East and concentrating maximum US naval assets to ring-fence China in its backyard. Since Biden is also a professed believer in a multilateral US foreign policy, he will be all ears to ideas for New Delhi and Washington to team up with other China-wary countries and form a united front.
The above policy is an offshoot of US Grand Strategy based Nicholas Spykman’s geostrategic vision. Spykman emphasized that the US needed partners in the Rimland to counter the rise of the Heartland (Soviet Union) and the Middle Kingdom (China). 1
Another school of geo-strategy was put forward by Alfred Thayer Mahan who said that “Whoever controls the world oceans control the world” and predicted the rise of both India and China as early in the 20th century. Therefore, the United States’ Grand Strategy in the 21st century is clearly seen as an aim to thwart the maritime ambition of Beijing.
A shift in Strategic Calculus
Then there is the military aspect of foreign policy. Since George W Bush the US has been over-reliant on the military as a blunt instrument of foreign policy to the detriment of diplomacy.
The traditional dictum that the military should be used only when diplomacy fails has during the Trump administration. The relationship between diplomacy and military force is not a zero-sum game. The approach will change in the new establishment.
Further, as Vice President, Biden was an advocate for Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. However, he’s unlikely to replace Trump’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” which focuses on drawing countries in the Indo-Pacific into a broader coalition of democracies to help offset China’s regional weight.3
Perhaps, Biden might seek to play down the military component of U.S. engagement in Asia, which under Trump has prioritized arms sales. The party platform approved during Democratic National Convention called for countering China “without resorting to self-defeating, unilateral tariff wars or falling into the trap of a new Cold War.”
The Democrats will reconsider the “Four D’s” of foreign policy: defence, diplomacy, development and the domestic sources of US international relations. Although the Democrats remain wedded to the liberal internationalist school of thought whereby market economies and democratic politics are considered to be the best economic-political combination for both national as well as international politics (something that is under serious challenge on a number of fronts including from within the US), her call for a review and revision of the priority placed on the four pillars of US foreign policy represented by the “D’s” is worth considering.
In fact, there is a chance that Hillary Clinton might just make an excellent Secretary of Defence should she be willing to take the job. Besides that, there will be much work to be done. The US needs experienced hands to undo the damage, but it also needs an ideological rethought, given the changed context post-Trump. Ironically, Trump has cleaned the slate and therefore cleared the way for a new approach to US foreign policy which will arrive soon.
In that context, the US will take a stronger line on Chinese influence in the Pacific, which will include reassertion of US naval dominance in the wider Indo Pacific waterways and sea lanes of communication used by the Chinese for trade and the prioritization of US defence ties to the countries surrounding China.
As part of its enhanced commitment to bilateral defence ties in the Western Pacific, the US will continue to work to cement its chain of security partners throughout the region, which now includes Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei, Singapore and Indonesia as well as Australia and New Zealand (the US is also pursuing improved security ties with Malaysia and Vietnam, both of whom have their own concerns about Chinese regional expansionism and in the Vietnamese case history of enmity with its larger neighbour).
The US’ defence treaties with Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines have often been seen as a strategic partner’s reiteration of its commitment to the security of these countries. Through the rebalancing strategy, the US seeks to reassure its allies that it stands by them in the face of an increasingly assertive China.
US’ grand strategy as part of its long-term national interests considers engagement with other countries of the Indo-Pacific as vital to its foreign policy objectives. The seriousness of the US in ‘rebalancing’ to the Asia-Pacific can be gauged from some of the decisions of the earlier US administration, such as the closing down of two military bases in Europe and shifting its military weight to the Asia-Pacific despite the defence budget cuts. This makes it clear that the US is prepared to go the distance if required but will not compromise the core components of its ‘rebalancing’ strategy.
US Pivot approach towards China and India’s stakes
The United States’ Pivot approach to China was a continuation of the Grand Strategic vision of Spykman and the rationale was understood under Barack Obama’s presidency which is likely to continue under Joe Biden’s presidency also.
First, it was understood that the pivot under the Barack Obama administration was intended to demonstrate United States commitment to give greater priority to focusing U.S. power and resources toward the Indo-Pacific region.
Second, the Obama administration made a concerted all-of-government effort to present a detailed strategic case for the importance of the Asia-Pacific to the long-term domestic and foreign policy interests of the United States which continued under the Republican President Donald Trump. In that context, the Biden administration will not make any paradigm shift rather will seek to have a continuity.
Third, a plan of action was put forward to bolster American influence in the region through deepened economic interaction, greater diplomatic engagement, stronger efforts to promote human rights and democratization, and a strengthened U.S. military presence. As the “pivot” (later termed the “rebalance”) toward the Asia Pacific took shape, it became one of the Obama administration’s most prominent and most critiqued foreign policy initiatives. Putting Plans into Action under the Obama administration, American policy in the Asia Pacific achieved many “firsts”.
Beyond the important commitment of presidential time, the Obama administration took a number of other unprecedented steps to deepen American diplomatic and political engagement with the region. Particular emphasis was given to Southeast Asia which connects the Asia-Pacific towards the Australasian a part of the Indo-Pacific which received comparatively little American attention in the recent past.4
On the other hand, it’s understood that despite Trump administration’s effort to include the whole of Indian and the Pacific Ocean under one geostrategic umbrella, it failed to attract many of the countries in the Associate of South East Asian Nations under the strategic ambit which was what was originally thought out by Washington during the Obama administration.
Further, in an effort to support US administration’s support to the Indo-Pacific the Obama administration acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in 2009, established a dedicated diplomatic mission to the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta in 2010 – the first ASEAN dialogue partner to do so – and also joined the annual ASEAN-led East Asia Summit process in 2011.
The annual U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting was launched in 2009, involving the heads of all 11 countries. In 2013, the “leaders meeting” was upgraded to a “summit,” the third of which, in November 2015, announced the establishment of a “strategic partnership” between the United States and ASEAN. All these strategic initiatives in an effort to have US strategic alliance and partnership in the Indo-Pacific is likely to continue which will be of interest to the Indian strategic establishment.
As an innovation, it’s expected that ASEAN countries will also join the Quad 2.0 bandwagon which may be initiated by the United States. Furthermore, in an effort to seek its strategic commitment, the US will expand the scope of the Five Point Defence Agreement to supplant the Quad initiative which will be watched with a lot of interest from New Delhi as it expands it’s the strategic horizon from South East Asia and beyond.
New US establishment will fast-track the Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement (BECA), thereby strengthening the other two agreements that were signed previously, the Logistics Exchange Agreement and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement.
Those two foundational agreements will fortify the General Security of Military Information Agreement, which India and the US signed in 2002 while the NDA government was in office. The US is likely to also support India’s expanding Air-Defence Weapons System.
The two countries will also increase the range and scope of the Quad, Malabar and Tiger Triumph military exercises, thereby developing the necessary interoperability.
They will increase their strategic co-operation through the Military Co-operation Group meetings, the senior-most military dialogue, as agreed upon at the 2+2 US-India Ministerial Dialogue. India’s restructuring of its military command will influence its relationship with the US and its allies.
The US, furthermore, offered to assist India in its quest to create a carrier task group and offered it Lockheed-Martin F-21 fighter aircraft (a variant of the F-16) as well as the F/A-18 Super Hornet to aid the Indian aircraft carrier programme and its power-projection capabilities.
The US agreed to sell additional Boeing P8 I maritime patrol aircraft to the Indian Navy, which will add to its surveillance and effective anti-submarine warfare capabilities in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
In conclusion, it’s understood that from imperatives that Joe Biden being an experienced foreign policy hand in Washington will seek to navigate the complex geopolitical challenges embedded with economic interest carefully. In that context, it’s expected that he will get help from New Delhi also as the latter will also seek to rebalance its strategic priorities thereby forming a perfect symphony in the near future.
(Balaji Chandramohan is a Research Scholar with the University of Madras. Previously, he was a Visiting Fellow with Future Directions International, Perth Australia. His previous assignment with think tanks includes Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA). Views expressed are personal.)
Colin S. Gray (2015) Nicholas John Spykman, the Balance of Power, and International Order, Journal of Strategic Studies, 38:6, 873-897
John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt The Case for Offshore Balancing A Superior U.S. Grand Strategy (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2016 pp 1-15)
Biden Likely to Keep Focus On “Indo-Pacific” Region to Tackle China (NDTV, November 9, 2020)
Balaji Chandramoha What will be the Shape of US Indo-Pacific Policy under
President Trump? Future Directions International Strategic Analysis Paper April 11, 2017 pp 1-5