Brahma Chellaney, OPEN magazine
It is no exaggeration to say that international policy toward China has for decades been shaped largely by one power — the United States. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, a succession of U.S. presidents aided China’s rise, including its integration into international institutions — from the UN Security Council to the World Trade Organization. And other countries followed the American lead in outsourcing manufacturing to China and building closer bonds with that communist giant. It is Donald Trump’s presidency that began a fundamental shift in U.S. policy.
The U.S. and India are now close security partners. But it is no exaggeration to say that India’s security over the years has been gravely undermined by U.S. policies, which created a Frankenstein on India’s northern frontiers (China) and an epicentre of international terrorism on its western borders (Pakistan).
In a major speech on China in July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared: “President Nixon once said he feared he had created a ‘Frankenstein’ by opening the world to the Chinese Communist Party, and here we are. Now, people of good faith can debate why free nations allowed these bad things to happen for all these years. Perhaps we were naive about China’s virulent strain of communism, or triumphalist after our victory in the Cold War, or cravenly capitalist, or hoodwinked by Beijing’s talk of a ‘peaceful rise.’ Whatever the reason — whatever the reason, today China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. And President Trump has said: enough.”
Trump himself has acknowledged that the U.S. created a “monster” by aiding China’s rise: “They [China] took advantage of us for many, many years. And I blame us, I don’t blame them. I don’t blame President Xi. I blame all of our presidents, and not just President Obama. You go back a long way. You look at President Clinton, Bush — everybody; they allowed this to happen, they created a monster.”
Aiding China’s rise was the greatest mistake of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. The U.S. actively contributed to the rise of its most formidable peer competitor in what will be remembered as a historically unprecedented act.
The U.S., however, is separated from China by a vast ocean — the Pacific — and does not have the same immediate and potent security concerns over growing Chinese assertiveness that many Asian states have. The security costs of America’s China blunder are indeed being borne essentially by Asians, from those in Taiwan and Hong Kong to the ethnic Tibetans and Uighurs. And as the Chinese encroachments on Ladakh’s key border areas this year have highlighted, India is bearing the brunt of China’s terrestrial aggression.
Here’s the paradox: As Sino-Indian relations plumb new depths following the Chinese stealth encroachments in Ladakh, India — unable to effectively counter the China threat on its own — is strengthening defence and strategic collaboration with the U.S., the monster creator. Chinese territorial aggression in the Himalayas has been a huge boon for American efforts to win over India, as highlighted by a recent agreement to share geospatial data from airborne and satellite sensors.
The U.S. today is close to accomplishing what it has long struggled to achieve — co-opt India in a “soft alliance.” In October, India signed the last of four “foundational” agreements that the U.S. maintains with all its close defence partners. Then-U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper declared that India will be “the most consequential partner for us, I think, in the Indo-Pacific for sure in this century.”
The U.S.-India strategic ties bear little resemblance to America’s Cold War-era system, which rested on a patron-client framework, with the U.S. as the “hub” and its allies as the “spokes.” No such arrangement would work nowadays, for the simple reason that a country as large as India cannot become just another Japan to the U.S.
The U.S., Japan and Australia are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves, making India’s co-option pivotal to building a constellation of democracies in the Indo-Pacific region. After establishing an Indo-Pacific strategy and resurrecting the Quad, which had been lying dormant for nine years, the Trump administration — in a symbolic nod toward India — renamed the U.S. military’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.
The “soft alliance” the U.S. is seeking to build with India will be devoid of any treaty obligations. And, given India’s longstanding preference for strategic autonomy, the U.S. has sought to reassure New Delhi that it is not seeking to change its foreign-policy traditions.
In the recent words of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, “Rather we want to explore how to empower them and India’s ability to defend its own sovereignty and democracy and to advance Indian interests across the Indo-Pacific region. As the U.S. assesses our own interests and how they intersect with India’s, we have seen the conditions emerge for an organic and deeper partnership — not an alliance on the post-war model, but a fundamental alignment along shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests and shared values.”
Biden’s tarnished record on China
The year 2020 will be remembered not just for the China-inspired COVID-19 shock and a moment of reckoning for the world’s largest dictatorship in Beijing, but also for the election defeat of Donald Trump, setting in motion the end of his U.S. presidency. Will Trump’s exit help relieve pressure on China?
Will the administration of Joe Biden return to the softer approach toward China of the Obama period? Under Obama’s watch, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime built artificial islands and militarized the South China Sea — without firing a single shot or incurring any international costs. The same model China has sought to replicate in the Himalayas, by incrementally encroaching on the territories of India, Nepal and Bhutan.
Yet, just months before he left office, Obama contended that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” Few of China’s neighbours shared that assessment. The Obama administration did little more than watch China’s aggressive expansionism — from redrawing the geopolitical map in the South China Sea to rolling out the neo-colonial Belt and Road Initiative with the aim to refashion the global economic and political order by luring nations desperate for infrastructure investments into its strategic orbit.
What will be the future of the Quad and the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy after Trump’s departure? This is another question with a bearing on India’s security and interests. The Trump administration gave India pride of place in its “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. That strategy has relied on the Quad.
The Trump administration, moreover, lent full support to India in countering China’s Himalayan border aggression and cut off security aid to Pakistan for not severing its ties with terrorist groups. It implicitly supported India’s 2019 Balakot airstrike deep inside Pakistan and refrained from criticizing India on its domestic actions, from the reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir to a refugees-related citizenship law amendment.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal rapport with Trump served India well. Trump’s standalone trip to India less than 10 months ago underscored how the expanding U.S.-India strategic partnership has become an important diplomatic asset for both countries. Trump summed up his trip as “unforgettable, extraordinary and productive.” The visit will be remembered for Trump’s famous words at a mega-rally in Modi’s home city of Ahmedabad: “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”
Under Biden, the fundamental direction of the U.S.-India relationship toward closer cooperation is unlikely to change. But Biden could reset ties with China in order to lower Sino-U.S. tensions and rebuild cooperation in areas where bilateral interests converge.
The open support the U.S. has extended to India in countering China’s border aggression may not survive under a Biden administration, especially if it seeks to reset ties with Beijing. With a pusillanimous Modi government unwilling to call China out on its aggression, let alone wage a diplomatic offensive to spotlight the Chinese encroachments, Trump’s national-security team members spoke out on what Xi’s regime had done to India.
For example, after the Galwan Valley clashes of mid-June, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said, “Chinese troops ambushed the Indians. They beat 20 Indians to death. They beat them so badly with clubs with nails in them and wrapped with concertina wire — barbed wire. They beat the Indians so badly that they were disfigured and could not be identified by their comrades. The Chinese have been very aggressive with India.”
Pompeo, for his part, has repeatedly highlighted China’s aggression against India. On July 8, Pompeo said, “The Chinese took incredibly aggressive action. The Indians have done their best to respond to that … I don’t think it’s possible to look at that particular instance of Chinese Communist Party aggression in isolation. I think you need to put it in the larger context.” Then on July 22 he said, “The recent clashes initiated by the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] are just the latest examples of the CCP’s unacceptable behaviour.”
On July 30, Pompeo cautioned, “They talk about bringing socialism with Chinese characteristics to the world. Claims that they have now made for real estate in Bhutan, the incursions that took place in India, these are indicative of Chinese intentions. And they are testing, they are probing the world to see if we are going to stand up to their threats and their bullying.” And, in a similar vein, he said on Sept. 2: “From the Taiwan Strait to the Himalayas and beyond, the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in a clear and intensifying pattern of bullying its neighbours.”
Such plain speaking may become a thing of the past. Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said at a Hudson Institute event in July that a Biden administration would seek to make the U.S. more competitive and values-centred and “reengage China and work with China” from a position of strength. Finding ways to cooperate with Beijing would mark a break with the Trump administration’s approach, which sees the U.S. in deeply ideological, even existential, conflict with the CCP.
Biden’s pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in a 2017 lecture, warned against “containment” as a policy, stating: “We need to strike a middle course — one that encourages China’s rise in a manner consistent with an open, fair, rules-based, regional order.” An autumn 2019 essay in the Foreign Affairs journalco-authored by Sullivan argued for “managed coexistence” with China, saying China is a “formidable competitor” but also “an essential U.S. partner.” So, containment is not tenable, it posited.
The essay pushed for “managed coexistence” in these words; “Advocates of neo-containment tend to see any call for managed coexistence as an argument for a version of the grand bargain; advocates of a grand bargain tend to see any suggestion of sustained competition as a case for a version of containment. That divide obscures a course between these extremes — one that is not premised on Chinese capitulation or on U.S.-Chinese condominium.” According to the essay, “The need for cooperation between Washington and Beijing is far more acute, given the nature of contemporary challenges.” The key, it argued, is for Washington to get “the balance between cooperation and competition right.”
The essay’s advocacy of “managed coexistence” with China must have been music to Chinese ears. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Fu Ying, a vice chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress and an ex-vice foreign minister, called for “cooperative competition” between the U.S. and China. Ms. Fu wrote: “Both governments have heavy domestic agendas to attend to, and so even if competition between China and the United States is unavoidable, it needs to be managed well, cooperatively. It is possible for the two countries to develop a relationship of ‘coopetition’ (cooperation + competition) by addressing each other’s concerns.”
The concept of “cooperative competition” sounds a lot like the “managed coexistence” idea. Both concepts imply a G2-style condominium defined by competitive-cum-cooperative elements. But make no mistake: America’s “managed coexistence” with China will further strengthen the CCP internally and externally. China is already the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party.
What is remarkable — and a cause for deep concern — is that Biden has been wrong on China virtually his entire career.
For example, as the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden in 2000 supported establishing Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Beijing on grounds that it would yield “economic benefits to the U.S.,” “political reform in China” and a positive “impact on our national security.” More than a decade later, in an op-ed in The New York Times in 2011, Biden gullibly declared, “I remain convinced that a successful China can make our country more prosperous, not less.”
Just last year, Biden stunned many with his apparent strategic naïveté by declaring at a campaign rally, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
After Biden’s election win over Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received an assurance from the president-elect during a congratulatory call that U.S. security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands. But, in apparent deference to China, the Biden office readout left out that assurance. In another worrying sign, Steve Ricchetti, who led the effort 21 years ago to get China into the WTO (an entry that has come back to haunt the U.S.), was named as the White House senior adviser to Biden — or, as one American newspaper put it, “tapped for the West Wing’s wise-man role.”
Likely demise of “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy
Biden’s biggest foreign-policy challenge relates to the world’s economic and geopolitical hub — the Indo-Pacific region, which unites the Indian and Pacific oceans. An expansionist China is injecting greater instability and tensions in the Indo-Pacific through its territorial and maritime revisionism and heavy-handed use of economic and military power.
When Trump took office, he replaced Obama’s floundering “pivot” to Asia with the broader “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, besides designating China as a strategic competitor and threat. Will America’s Indo-Pacific policy flip again during Biden’s presidency?
Last month’s “Malabar” Australia-India-Japan-U.S. naval war games in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea showed that the Quad is beginning to take concrete shape in response to China’s muscular policies. But just when a concert of democracies in the Indo-Pacific seems closer than ever, the impending change of U.S. government has added a new layer of uncertainty, including on the future of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Biden, even before taking office, has signalled his intent to discard the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. The “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept was originally authored by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Rarely has the U.S. adopted a foreign-designed concept as the linchpin of its foreign policy.
The “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy’s days seem numbered. Even the term “Indo-Pacific,” whose use expanded America’s regional framework to include India as a major power, was conspicuously absent in Biden’s campaign statements and the 2020 Democratic Party Platform.
In fact, the 2020 Democratic Party Platform reverted to the use of the old term “Asia-Pacific” in place of “Indo-Pacific.” It carried a section titled “Asia-Pacific.” China strongly prefers the “Asia-Pacific” term. After the U.S. presidential election, the Chinese state media has been urging the Biden team to replace “Indo-Pacific” with “Asia-Pacific.”
After his election, Biden has started referring to “Indo-Pacific” in calls with foreign leaders but not to “free and open.” Instead, Biden has coined a new phrase — “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” He used the new expression in calls with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan. Biden, however, has given no indication how his “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” policy will be different from the current “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy.
Today, a rules-based and democracy-led order in the Indo-Pacific has become more important than ever to ensure a stable power balance. If the region’s major democracies, from Canada and South Korea to Indonesia and India, leverage their growing strategic bonds to generate progress toward a broader concert of democracies, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be realized.
Instead, the likely demise of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy is set to spur concerns in Asia. It will also lead to questions about the inherent unpredictability surrounding U.S. strategy and the wisdom of investing in closer strategic bonds with Washington.
Nowhere will these questions generate greater concerns than in India, which hosted the recent Malabar war games. India elevated the war games this year from a trilateral to quadrilateral event by finally acceding to Australia’s pending request to re-join an exercise from which it dropped out 12 years ago in a bid to appease Beijing. The Chinese communist mouthpiece Global Times said earlier that Australia’s inclusion would “signal that the Quad military alliance is officially formed.”
The loss of the expression “free and open Indo-Pacific” will likely be seen in India as a diminution of its future role in American strategy. More broadly, it could be viewed as a possible dilution of the U.S. commitment to establish an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies, with India serving as the western anchor and Japan and Australia the eastern and southern anchors of a regional balance of power.
Biden has promised to host a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office to help “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” But such a values-based, globalized approach contrasts with the current U.S. strategy of regionally leveraging cooperation with democracies for geopolitical ends.
Unless a clearer strategic vision emerges under Biden, the likely unravelling of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy could smother any hoped-for regional concert of democracies.
At a time when the strengthening China-Pakistan strategic nexus is imposing greater security costs on India, any shifts in America’s China and Pakistan policies — even if subtle — will only embolden the two hand-in-glove neighbours to further up the ante against New Delhi. U.S.-India relations thrived during the Trump presidency, despite Trump’s mini-trade war against New Delhi. But India now faces new uncertainties with regard to U.S. regional policies, including whether Biden’s administration will seek greater cooperation with Beijing and Islamabad.
Few know what Biden stands for. Biden, who turned 78 last month, will be the oldest ever American president sworn in for the first time. An October op-ed in The Wall Street Journal said, “Though it is impolitic to say so, Biden has exhibited clear signs of mental decline.”
Biden won the election despite having no political base or vision — and no ideas, other than to oust Trump from office. In fact, his divided Democratic Party is trying to figure out what it stands for after realizing the common goal of ending Trump’s presidency.
Some in Indian policy circles still remember how Senator Biden spearheaded a congressional move in 1992 that helped block Russian sale of cryogenic-engine technology for India’s civilian space program, setting it back many years. Today, the U.S. and India are not only space partners, but also the U.S. Strategic Command head defended India’s 2019 demonstration of a capability to destroy an orbiting satellite.
If as president, Biden seeks to mend U.S. ties with the Chinese dictatorship, relieves terrorism-related pressure on Pakistan by restoring security aid, and criticizes India on Kashmir and minority rights, New Delhi will have second thoughts on getting too close to the US. India, however, is likely to remain important for the U.S. because of its massive market and strategic location. It is the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific that can countervail China’s military and economic moves.
Biden hasn’t revealed his thinking to any significant degree on foreign policy. Most members of the national security team he has selected are considered “liberal interventionists” — or hawks on the American left. It was liberal interventionists who, under Obama, engineered the disastrous interventions in Syria and Libya and who, during the Bill Clinton presidency, spearheaded the NATO air war against Yugoslavia.
Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state pick, favoured invasion of Iraq in 2003 and military intervention in Libya in 2011. Indeed, Blinken publicly celebrated America’s occupation of Iraq as a “success,” claiming it had brought down violence and won grassroots support. Sullivan, another hawk in Biden’s team, supported U.S. supply of anti-tank missiles for Ukraine, which President Obama opposed and Trump finally delivered.
Espousing military action as humanitarianism has been the common leitmotif uniting liberal interventionists with neoconservatives, who were behind America’s Iraq invasion and occupation. Today, both these powerful groups in Washington remain fixated on Russia, although Russia’s economy today is less than one-tenth the size of China’s and its military spending one-fifth of China.
U.S. policy has already driven two natural competitors, China and Russia, into a growing strategic alignment. This geopolitical reality, if left unaddressed, could crimp U.S. strategy against China.
Let’s be clear: The year 2020 has been particularly bad for Beijing. China’s initial coverup of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan that gifted the world a horrendous pandemic, followed by its unchecked expansionism and pursuit of “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” were signal moments that spurred a tectonic shift in views across the political spectrum in the U.S. and helped change global opinion on China. Negative views of China have now reached historic highs in many countries, according to a survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
Perhaps the only bit of good news for Beijing in 2020 has been Trump’s ouster. Xi’s regime is hoping that Biden’s administration will ease the mounting U.S. pressure that has set in motion an international pushback against Beijing. A number of important economies are now seeking a managed and selective decoupling from China in key areas. If Biden proves a weak president, the pushback will certainly ease — and the decoupling could slow.
Although Xi may see Biden’s election victory as a silver lining, it will be a major surprise if “managed coexistence” (aka “cooperative competition”) comes to define Biden’s China policy.
Such an approach will militate against the current bipartisan consensus on China in the U.S., reflected in the 2020 Democratic Party Platform’s pledge that the “Democrats will be clear, strong, and consistent in pushing back where we have profound economic, security and human rights concerns about the actions of China’s government.” Managed coexistence, in fact, could be a recipe for America’s inexorable decline.
There is an additional factor that could constrain Biden from going soft on China — a lingering scandal involving his controversial son, Hunter. As vice president, Biden took Hunter aboard Air Force Two to Beijing in 2013. Within days, Hunter’s firm become a partner in a new Bank of China-backed investment company that raised more than $1.5 billion. Hunter personally made millions of dollars from the deal. Republicans could resurrect that scandal to embarrass Biden.
In fact, after Biden’s election win, the U.S. state department released a 72-page blueprint on how to checkmate China’s imperial ambitions to dominate the world. The blueprint, which includes a section on China’s internal vulnerabilities, is in the style of a landmark 1947 essay by George F. Kennan (the founding director of its Policy Planning Staff) that helped institute the containment policy against the Soviet Union — a policy that defined the Cold War era. Kennan published the essay anonymously in the journal Foreign Affairs, the so-called “X-Article.”
The new blueprint on how to deal with the China challenge is likely to serve as broad guidance for Biden’s administration. It specifies a multipronged approach to address the China challenge.
For New Delhi, the key concern extends beyond the bilateral relationship with Washington — a relationship that is likely to remain close. There is gnawing uncertainty about the larger strategic approach of the Biden presidency and how it will align with India’s own strategic interests.
Without U.S. leadership and resolve, a credible counter to Chinese expansionism will never be convincing. Biden’s China and Indo-Pacific policies will help influence Beijing’s behaviour in Asia and the strategic trajectory of the U.S.-India relationship.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, Water, Peace, and War.