US foreign policy changes under Biden could have profound impact on South Asia

Joe Biden may not drastically reverse foreign policy decisions of his predecessor like Donald Trump did of Barack Obama but Biden’s novel approaches to issues and regions could have ramifications for South Asia even as India-US relationship continues to grow, writes Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (Retd) for South Asia Monitor


US President Donald Trump has challenged the election of Joe Biden as 46th POTUS-elect but much before the election verdict came, the airspace over Biden’s house was declared a closed zone and taken under special control of the military, signaling Biden's victory.

That did not stop the US media from comparing Biden with Trump, painting Biden “segregationist,” one who branded black Americans “predators," and airing his 2019 debate with Kamala Harris (Vice President-elect) where Harris accused Biden of “misdemeanors” and labeled him “racist.” 

During his visit to India in February 2020, Trump had declared that the US economy was the best ever, which was true. But then the coronavirus, which originated from China, ravaged the world and ultimately it was handling of the pandemic and economy that mattered most for the US public in choosing their next president.

US policy towards India – will it change?

Joe Biden may not drastically reverse foreign policy decisions of his predecessor like Donald Trump did of Barak Obama but Biden’s novel approaches to issues and regions could have ramifications for South Asia even as India-US relationship continues to grow.

The general opinion has been there would be no change in the US policy towards India irrespective of who the next POTUS is. It was also hoped Democrats would not nurture a grudge that last September Prime Minister Narendra Modi vociferously canvassed Indian Americans in Houston to vote for Trump during the next election. Indian Americans are Americans first whose priority is the US national interests, not Indian. The same goes for Kamala Harris who projected herself as both Black-American and Indo-America while electioneering. 

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN visiting India in June 2018 told reporters,   "We think freedom of religion is just as important as freedom of rights and freedom of peoples."

Biden’s election agenda exhorts India to restore the rights of the people of Kashmir and lift all curbs. It also mentioned Biden’s disappointment over the National Register of Citizens for Assam and the Citizenship Amendment Act, calling these inconsistent with secularism and sustaining multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy. India ironically ranks 142 in World Press Freedom Index 2020 - just three spots above Pakistan. 

Biden’s priority as next US president

Biden’s priority would be tackling the pandemic and getting the economy back on rails, both not easy tasks. He will possibly review the US policy on the Paris Accord, Iran Nuclear Deal, and TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), in addition to START-II ((Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), though arms control without China would remain partial at the global level.    

Biden may not strike a trade deal with China but in order to improve the US economy may go ‘soft’ on China - as is being interpreted from a statement by the US ambassador to China. A ‘soft’ stance on China could affect America’s Indo-Pacific policy and slowdown Quad’s transformation into a security alliance.

Beijing would woo Biden for adopting such an approach that would give time for China to enhance its CNP (Comprehensive National Power) and match up with the US military. But in such a case, China could advance forcible integration of Taiwan and resume aggression against India, testing US redlines in between.   

The US sanctions on Iran and killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani escalated the US-Iran tensions tremendously, pushing Iran closer to China. Soleimani was for Baloch liberation, which would fragment Pakistan and fracture the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) restricting China’s land access to the Indian Ocean. The Trump administration labeled Baloch Liberation Army terrorists but has just de-listed East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its terrorist list.

Will Biden revive the Iran Nuclear Deal and ease sanctions on Iran which the EU ALSO wants? Reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal and lifting sanctions on Iran would be good for the region. India can resume oil supplies from Iran that would help India's economy. Iran has already allowed India to use the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link. 

China and Pak policy – will it be softer now?

The drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan has been halted with spiraling violence amidst Intra-Afghan talks. Biden hopefully will retain sufficient troop strength in Afghanistan to not let Af-Pak become a cauldron of terror, expanding China’s influence in South Asia. As the US was closing bases in Afghanistan, reports emerged that instead of transferring surplus tanks and warlike stores to the Afghan National Army, these are being shifted across the border to Pakistan. What will be the stance of the Biden administration towards Pakistan with a softer approach on China and talking of lifting curbs in Jammu and Kashmir but ignoring Pakistan’s proxy war on India that has necessitated such curbs in the first place?   

How the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) wants to orchestrate the global Shia-Sunni conflict with or without the Biden administration is important. It is no secret that the Obama administration allowed the rise of ISIS and its training and arming in Turkey. In Afghanistan, the US troops have been battling Taliban-Haqqanis-Al Qaeda while the CIA has been using the IS directly and through Pakistan. ISIS is back in Iraq and with its associates like Jundullah has been launching cross-border terror attacks in Iran. Biden had welcomed the fall of the Shah of Iran but how would the US react to Iran giving it back to Pakistan in a similar manner given the sustained killings-massacre of Shias in Af-Pak?  

Has Capitol Hill noticed that China is in league with major terrorist groups including ISIS - the absence of terror attacks against Chinese interests in Afghanistan proves this? A new terrorist organization has come up with swearing allegiance to Islamic State in Myanmar. This is in addition to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army headed by a Pakistani national and supported by China-Pakistan in addition to other terrorist groups. The CPEC and CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) is China’s strategic highways to the Indian Ocean that greatly assist China’s domination of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).    

Without a doubt, the US realizes India’s centrality in the defense architecture of the Indo-Pacific given the rising China threat. Counter-terror cooperation will continue and the US wants India to become strong.

The question is how strong would the Biden Administration want India to be and how it addresses the China-Pakistan sponsored terrorism in South Asia.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal) 


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