What Can South Asia Expect from President Biden?
China to determine US relations with rest of Asia
COLOMBO: In the last few years, South Asia has become important for US policy on Asia given the fact that China has spread its tentacles in the region with huge investments in infrastructural projects.
The existing regional and global powers, namely India and the US, have also been apprehensive about China’s throwing its weight about in the Indian Ocean region just as it is doing in South China Sea. This is the reason why India and the US are harping on freedom of navigation and rule-based navigation and have formed the “Quad” which is an anti-China alliance of the US, India, Japan and Australia.
Therefore, China is the main factor determining America’s relations with Asia, whether it is East Asia, South East Asia or South Asia. Bilateral relations with any of the countries in the region will be determined by that country’s relations or engagement with China.
Outgoing President Donald Trump had an aggressive approach to China, and, as often stated by his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s goal was to dislodge the Chinese Communist Party’s from power in Beijing. In other words, the Trump Administration was going at China’s jugular. The US had made the conflict not just a fight between two nations but between two ideologies, democracy and communism, between good and evil. American’s trade and technology policies were hard-hitting and the language employed was harsh. In Colombo, Pompeo dubbed the Chinese Communist Party a “predator” out to put fund receiving countries in a “debt trap”. Pompeo’s idea was to sow seeds of fear in countries like Sri Lanka which are receiving huge dollops of development funding from China.
While Joe Biden will certainly attempt to contain China which is challenging America’s pre-eminence in the world, his methods will be different. Under his scheme, the emphasis will not just be on strategic/military cooperation but economic cooperation based on mutual gain.
Biden is expected to put the US back in economic organizations like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which Trump had quit. His aim will be to provide countries with a credible alternative to China’s allegedly debt trapping Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Unlike Trump, Biden does not see China as a sworn enemy but as a “competitor”. His approach will be to convince China that it would be in its interest to reform its conduct in international affairs including the trade, technology and maritime sectors. He would not want to seek a regime change in Beijing but to get together all democratic countries to put pressure on Beijing to change its human rights, trade, technology and maritime policies. Though Biden used the word “thug” to describe Chinese President Xi Jinping, he would refrain from using such epithets as President of the US.
Most importantly, instead of merely curbing China, as Trump did, Biden would improve the US’s own economic and technological capabilities. This he proposes to do not unilaterally, but through cooperation with allies and other democratic countries in a mutually beneficial manner. He would also lend an ear and accommodate the concerns and needs of the countries he would be befriending.
This could mean that Biden would give these countries a better alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which allegedly spawns unsustainable debt. This will suit countries like Sri Lanka which want US investments and not just criticism for accepting Chinese funds for developing infrastructure.
India has a border row with China going back to 1959 and the two countries had fought a month-long war in 1962. India is irked by China’s growing ties with Pakistan with which it has fought three wars – two over Kashmir and one over Bangladesh. India is also hurt that China supports Pakistan on the issue of cross-border terrorism.
Like Trump, Biden too will support India against China and seek to enhance India’s participation in the Quad. But unlike Trump, he would be less keen on seeing India and China go to war because his overall approach to China would not be muscle flexing or sabre rattling but constructive diplomacy. This will prevent a Sino-Indian war.
Unlike Trump, who cared little for the Narendra Modi government’s alleged human rights violations in Kashmir and discriminatory policies on Muslims, Biden is expected to speak out on rights violations albeit without alienating Modi. Biden is most likely to put the US back in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which was shunned by Trump. This will be a shot in the arm for human rights advocates in India.
Impact of Iran Policy
Biden is expected to reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran. US withdrawal from the deal had only resulted in Iran’s continuing its nuclear weapons program. To cajole Tehran to yield on the nuclear issue, Biden could go soft on the sanctions against Iran. This might result in India’s getting back its abandoned projects - namely, building the Chabahar port and the Chahabar-Zahedan railway and developing the Farzad-B gas field. This will help India regain its long-standing friendship with Iran.
Biden is expected to take up Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s suggestion to Mike Pompeo that the US should find ways of investing in the island nation instead of indulging in false propaganda that China is putting Sri Lanka in a debt trap.
Gotabaya and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had given Pompeo a list of sectors in which American investment would be welcome. Biden is expected to take this offer seriously as he is interested in carrying democratic countries with him in his bid to make America friendly and relevant to all countries.
There is a fear in Sri Lanka that Biden will pillory Colombo on the human rights and ethnic reconciliation issues, especially after the US gets back into the UNHRC. Democrats have traditionally taken up rights issues. The Obama Administration had done that earlier vis-a-vis Sri Lanka.
There is a particular fear among the majority Sinhala community in Sri Lanka that Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris will take up the Tamil “separatist” cause as she is half Tamil. The Tamil Diaspora must be working on her already, wrote HLD Mahindapala in The Sunday Observer of November 8.
However, while the Biden Administration will take up ethnic and reconciliation issues to prove its democratic credentials, it will not go hammer and tongs against the powerful and well-entrenched Gotabaya Rajapaksa government as it needs the Lankan government for its geo-strategic need to contain China in the Indian Ocean. Over time, it may try to rope strategically located Sri Lanka into the Quad.
Unlike Trump, Biden is keen on expanding existing alliances and not walking out of them. Biden might even agree to re-negotiate the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact which the Rajapaksa government wants re-negotiated.
Pakistan’s main concerns are ceaseless tension with India and unease with the slow progress in the peace process in neighboring Afghanistan. With Biden unlikely to be overtly friendly with India’s Narendra Modi, Pakistan could expect Modi to restrain himself in his dealings with it.
Like Trump, Biden is committed to withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan but not in a hurry as Trump wanted to. Like Trump he will encourage the Taliban and the Kabul government to reach a peace settlement as soon as possible while keeping a contingent of US troops to help the peace process. An unhurried US withdrawal and moves towards a peace settlement will be in Pakistan’s interest.
Committed to working through consensus, Biden might begin a dialogue with Islamabad and the all-powerful Pakistan army to ensure peace in Afghanistan and also to prevent Pakistan going over to China wholesale. He could encourage US investments. His commitment to lifting Trump’s ban on immigration from Muslim countries will help improve ties with Pakistan.
Nepal, Bangladesh and Maldives
US strategic and economic involvement in Nepal, Bangladesh and the Maldives is negligible as these countries come under the Indian umbrella. However, Biden will keep an eye on developments in these countries as Nepal shares a border with China and the Maldives is the “gate keeper” of the Indian Ocean. The US is to establish an embassy in the Maldives.