Ambassador SURENDRA KUMAR | 3 DECEMBER, 2020
India in President Joe Biden’s World…
India will not get top priority
After all the huffing and puffing and bravado President Donald Trump still hasn’t shown the graciousness of uttering the two words: I concede.
In the meanwhile, President elect Joe Biden is putting his team together. His pick for three crucial posts: Tony Blinken for the Secretary of state; Jack Sullivan as the National Security Adviser and John Kerry as the Special Envoy for Climate Change are no strangers to India. They have all dealt with India under former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
John Kerry has visited India as the Secretary of State and was closely involved in the painstaking negotiations by Obama with Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President, Xi Jinping which led to the signing of the Paris Climate change agreement on December 12, 2015.
Blinken who has worked with Presidents Clinton and Obama and Vice President Biden has interacted with then foreign secretary and now Minister of External Affairs Jaishankar. Sullivan, only 43 years of age, has worked with Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State and Vice President Biden.
While introducing them Biden said,” these public servants will restore America globally; it’s global leadership and moral leadership. It’s a team that reflects that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.”
Kerry’s choice underlines Biden’s commitment to be a leading voice in the Global Climate change discourse from which Trump had foolishly decided to exit. The Biden-Modi partnership in addressing the existential crises of climate change will be hugely welcomed internationally.
Taking pride in his “America First Idea”, Trump was transactional in his dealings with the world not only with India. And he showed scant consideration to international norms in his interaction with his counterparts; his public remarks and tweets often bordered on utter insensitivity and veiled threat.
None could find fault with his desire to balance America’s trade but to call India in public the “tariff King“while US’s trade imbalance with India wasn’t even 1/10th of its imbalance with China; and mimicking Modi about the tariff on Harley Davidson motorbikes when barely 100 bikes were being imported; and warning that “there will be consequences” if India didn’t supply hydroxychloroquine was not only undiplomatic but uncouth.
Similar insensitivity was discernible in Trump’s intransigence on the issue of H1B visa which hit the Indian techies most ;this was in spite of the fact that several American tech giants like : Google, Microsoft, Apple ,Face book went public saying that experts who come on H1B visas contribute to their industry. Biden’s immigration policy as it unfolds might ease the difficulties faced by H1B visa seekers and spouses who wish to work and families which were separated.
Well, trade disputes won’t disappear, even in Obama’s Presidency we had disputes against the US pending with the WTO. Bilateral trade agreement which has been negotiated for the last three years and the restoration of the GSP which was junked by Trump are unlikely to happen as India’s Atma Nirbhar emphasis is viewed in the US by many with skepticism; they consider it as nothing short of protectionism.
And jobs, when the US has over 30 million jobless, thanks to lockdowns, will remain a sensitive issue. In his first term, Obama used to claim in his speeches that jobs were going to Bangalore and Beijing. Unless, the US economy rebounds, the new President will have to tread carefully lest he turns public opinion against him.
But the Biden administration will not reduce these issues to public spat. These will be discussed by the concerned agencies professionally, each side trying to strike the best bargain but keeping the broader picture of India-US relations in view. In other words, if the US considers India its strategic partner, the relationship will have to be seen through the strategic prism, each issue can’t be weighed in terms of profit and loss or plus and minus.
Biden’s unambiguous admission that problems like Covid-19, world trade, international terrorism and cyber crimes can be best handled when the US works with her allies signals America’s return to multilateral cooperation. While his message was more directed to the European Union (the US & EU remain each others biggest investor and their GDPs almost match), strategic partners like India can also take a sigh of relief as Trump’s unpredictable, arbitrary unilateralism was disruptive to say the least. His decision to rejoin the WHO should boost international efforts to beat Covid-19.
If the Biden administration chooses to open a dialogue with Iran and there is willingness not to impose CAATSA extraterritorially on countries trading with Iran, it will facilitate India’s efforts at ensuring energy security. Likelihood of resumption of import of some oil from Iran shouldn’t be ruled out.
Because of the closure of most of university campuses and classes going on line, request of student visas for the US has gone down sharply. If with the arrival of vaccines and better implementation of various precautions, the US is able to contain/control Covid-19, student’s interest to return to the US may pick up in the second half of 2021.
India walked out of RCEP last year in Bangkok complaining that her core concerns weren’t addressed (Nov 2019).However 15 Asian nations accounting for 1/3rd of world’s GDP signed the RCEP virtually on November 15 2020 making it world’s trading block.
It is no secret that this block will be dominated by China whose economy is already showing positive signs of recovery while economies world over ,including the US economy, are reeling under recession. To counter China’s increasing economic clout,Biden might rejoin the TPP (now called Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TPP or TPP-11).However; India is unlikely to be invited to be a member.
In matters related to defence cooperation, India’s conflict with China on the LAC and overall approach on Indo-Pacific India-US relations might witness some shift in nuances but no drastic change. Smooth exit from Afghanistan is still a dream, Pakistan won’t be dumped.
We must keep our expectations rather modest; in the global perspective of the new President saddled with so many issues crying out for attention, we won’t get the top priority. And we shouldn’t complain about it. Possible presence of Indian Americans in key appointments will be an asset.
Ambassador Surendra Kumar is retired from the Indian Foreign Service.
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