The U.S. today risks accelerating its relative decline through strategic overreach. A first step to addressing that risk is to abandon its sanctions overreach and recalibrate its sanctions so that they stop advancing China’s commercial and strategic interests.
U.S. foreign policy has long relied on sanctions, despite their uncertain effectiveness and unintended consequences. No sooner had President Joe Biden assumed office than he slapped new sanctions on Russia and Myanmar.
Sanctions are a favorite and grossly overused tool of American diplomacy when dealing with countries that cannot impose significant costs in reprisal. Indeed, Washington has fallen into a self-injurious trap by viewing sanctions as the easy answer to any problem.
Sanctions may have been a defensible policy in the second half of the 20th century, when American economic and military power was overwhelming. But with relative U.S. wealth and power in decline, so is the efficacy of its sanctions. Far from exacting a serious penalty, U.S. sanctions often advance the commercial and strategic interests of its main competitor, China.
Nothing better illustrates this fact than China’s latest 25-year economic and security agreement with Iran, where ever-tightening U.S. sanctions have made China that country’s most important commercial partner over the past decade.
Now, under the new accord, China will boost its investment in major Iranian sectors even further, step up defense cooperation and establish a joint bank that will allow Tehran to borrow and trade in yuan, whose international use Beijing is actively promoting. Iran also shows how U.S. sanctions can penalize America’s own friends such as India and Japan.
While India’s compliance with America’s Iran-oil embargo has added billions of dollars to its fuel import costs, China has defiantly stepped up its purchases of Iranian oil at discounted prices. When the U.S. reimposed a new list of penalties on Iran in November 2018, it forced many Japanese companies to suspend their contracts with Iranian energy suppliers.
U.S. policymakers should be most worried by how their punitive actions have forced Russia to pivot to China, helping two natural competitors become close strategic partners. A forward-looking U.S. administration would avoid confronting Russia and China simultaneously, and instead seek to play one off against the other.
But Biden, claiming that a declining Russia poses “just as real” a threat as the powerful, rising, technologically sophisticated China, hit Moscow with new sanctions in early March for detaining dissident Alexei Navalny. And, subsequently vowing that Russian President Vladimir Putin will “pay a price” for his alleged meddling in U.S. presidential elections and calling him a “killer,” Biden has threatened to impose more severe boycotts.
The multiple rounds of U.S. sanctions since Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea have already resulted in the worst relationship Washington has had with Moscow since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently noted, sanctions “are not going to do much good.”
In fact, Russia’s increasingly close strategic alignment with China represents a profound U.S. foreign policy failure, underscoring the counterproductive nature of American sanctions. The U.S. could seek to rebalance its relationship with Russia by easing its heavy-handed approach, but old habits die hard. More sanctions on Moscow will only strengthen China’s hand in challenging America’s global preeminence.
Paradoxically, the U.S. treats China with respect. Biden, for example, has not called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “killer” or pledged to make him pay a price, despite China’s concentration camps in Xinjiang that hold more than a million Muslim Uighurs. U.S. sanctions over the muzzling of Hong Kong’s autonomy in violation of a United Nations-registered treaty have spared those in Xi’s inner circle.
When it comes to the small kids on the block, however, U.S. sanctions often substitute for forward-thinking policy. For example, the U.S. slapped sanctions on Myanmar’s top generals in late 2019 over the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya instead of addressing what American officials recognized as the main weakness in policy — Washington’s failure to establish close ties with Myanmar’s military.
The sanctions effectively removed all incentives for the commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to support continued democratization. Worse still, after helping turn National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi into a virtual saint, the U.S. began slamming her over treatment of the Rohingya exodus and her ties to the military, emboldening the generals to stage a coup.
Now the U.S. risks repeating history. Just as crippling sanctions from the late 1980s pushed a reluctant Myanmar into China’s arms, the new series of sanctions on Myanmar since February — including the latest suspension of trade relations — is welcome news for Xi’s regime.
More fundamentally, Washington’s reliance on sanctions has highlighted the inherent weakness in its policy: The failure to develop objective criteria on the circumstances that would justify sanctions has allowed narrow geopolitical considerations to drive the imposition of sanctions seemingly at random.
Why, for example, does the U.S. readily do business with Thailand, even as the leader of the 2014 coup remains ensconced in power, but insists on “immediate restoration of democracy” in neighboring Myanmar? The Biden administration has initiated an internal review of U.S. sanctions programs to understand their utility and consequences. Yet, without waiting for the outcome of the review, Biden has taken to sanctions like a duck to water.
The U.S. today risks accelerating its relative decline through strategic overreach. A first step to addressing that risk is to abandon its sanctions overreach and recalibrate sanctions so that they do not aid Xi’s hegemony-seeking “Chinese dream.”
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
Barely six months ago, China dismissed the idea that an international coalition against it will emerge, saying “that day will never, ever come.” But, thanks to China’s aggressive expansionism and renegade actions, that day is coming, with the Quad likely to be at the core of a broader international coalition. China has fuelled the Quad’s development, with its military aggression in Ladakh helping to move India closer into this strategic grouping.
It is precisely this border aggression that has lent new momentum to the Quad’s evolution toward a concrete formal security arrangement. India holds the key to the Quad’s direction and future because the US, Australia and Japan already are tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves.
Shocked by China’s furtive territorial encroachments in Ladakh, India shed its reticence and undertook several steps, including concluding mutual logistics support accords with Australia and Japan, signing the last of four “foundational” agreements that the US maintains with all its close defence partners, and playing host to the first-ever Quad military drills by letting Australia re-join the Malabar exercise. Boosting broader military interoperability, India is now participating in Quad-plus naval exercises, such as “Sea Dragon” that involved Canada and the upcoming “La Pérouse” with France.
With India’s closer integration, the Quad is beginning to blossom. However, there is no plan to turn the Quad into a military alliance, let alone an Indo-Pacific version of NATO. In fact, the Quad members’ security interests are not entirely congruent. The security threat China poses is much more acute and immediate for India and, to some extent, Japan than for the distant US and Australia.
The Quad — like the US Indo-Pacific policy — is focused on the maritime domain. But the ongoing Himalayan military standoffs at multiple points highlight China’s land-based threat against India. The only Quad member to share a land border with China is India, a position that allows Beijing to quickly ratchet up aggressive actions against India. In fact, India is the sole Quad state to have faced war with China in the post-World War II period.
With Australia, Japan and the US all focused on the seas, India is the only Quad member that maintains a land-based defence posture. Indeed, the US has never considered a land war against China. America’s main objective is non-military — to counter China’s geopolitical, ideological and economic challenges to its global pre-eminence.
Against this background, public discourse in India shouldn’t get ahead of the operational and functional instruments of strategic collaboration. It is important to understand both the Quad’s utility and its limitations. The Quad certainly cannot mitigate India’s security challenges. Unlike Japan and Australia, India is not under the US security (and nuclear) umbrella. The US, in any case, has a record of disregarding even its treaty-based obligations toward its allies. It was the US silence over China’s mid-2012 capture of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from American ally, the Philippines, that emboldened China to embark on an island-building programme and redraw the South China Sea’s geopolitical map.
India must deal with Chinese belligerence essentially on its own. To be sure, the China-India power asymmetry is widening. But aggregate military and economic capabilities alone do not determine any war’s outcome. History is replete with examples of the weaker side vanquishing the stronger opponent. India, with the world’s most-experienced army in hybrid mountain warfare, focuses on defence, which is easier than offense. Recognizing India’s battle-hardened air and ground forces, China has sought to achieve its territorial and other objectives by stealth. India’s main weakness, which puts it perennially at the receiving end, is a risk-averse political and military leadership.
Still, it is imperative that the Quad gain strategic heft so as to bring an expansionist China under pressure. By cooperating in military, economic and technological realms and coordinating their responses to China’s aggressive actions, the Quad members can put discreet checks on the unbridled exercise of Chinese power. India, by working closely with the other Quad members on matters of mutual interest, will be able to punch above its economic and military weight.
Brahma Chellaney is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
The “Quad,” as its recent virtual summit underscored, has come a long way in cementing a strategic coalition of the leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific region. Comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States, it has gradually sharpened its edges since 2019 in response to China’s aggressive expansionism.
Yet, when Joe Biden was elected, there was uncertainty over the Quad’s future, including whether the new U.S. president would carry forward his predecessor’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy based on the concept authored by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016. Even the term “Indo-Pacific” was conspicuously absent in Biden’s presidential campaign statements and the 2020 Democratic Party Platform.
Only after being sworn in as president, Biden began speaking about a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” He then took the initiative for the first-ever Quad summit. This is a testament to the fact that the Biden administration inherited a coherent and realistic strategy on the Indo-Pacific.
The surprise from the March 12 summit was that — unlike the past Quad foreign ministers’ meetings — it yielded a joint statement, which articulated a clear-eyed vision. “We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion,” the statement declared.
But make no mistake: Without real action and sustained resolve, dialogues and joint statements will not be enough to make a difference in the Indo-Pacific. An emboldened China, after tasting consecutive successes in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, could make Taiwan its next direct target. It has stepped up its expansionist activities in the Himalayan borderlands and the East China Sea.
Despite China’s lengthening shadow, the summit, however, offered little in terms of concrete strategic counteraction. If anything, its vaccine initiative illustrated how, with the media’s help, a public relations gimmick can be spun into a major summit success.
The summit’s “breakthrough” deal centered on helping India’s Biological E firm to produce 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of 2022, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But the firm has confirmed that it already can produce more than 1 billion vaccine doses a year. It signed a preliminary co-production agreement with Johnson & Johnson last August.
The Quad vaccine initiative has done little more than obscure America’s refusal to do something now, including releasing the vaccines it has been hoarding and permitting a temporary intellectual-property waiver so as to give poorer nations access to generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. India and South Africa are leading the international push for such a temporary waiver.
Given its relative decline, the U.S. needs its allies more than ever so that, in seeking to address the China challenge and other global problems, its power is augmented by that of its allies and strategic partners.
Yet, under Biden, it is sadly sending a wrong message with its vaccine hoarding, which denies its European allies much-needed supplies to combat COVID-19. This is likely to raise an important question among all allies, from Japan to Poland and Canada: If the U.S. will not share its vaccine stockpile with its closest allies during a horrendous pandemic, how can its leadership be trusted in a security contingency?
In fact, by invoking the 1950 U.S. Defense Production Act, the Biden administration is also hoarding vaccine components. America’s export restriction is creating a global supply chain problem: With not enough critical raw materials to go around, vaccine production is coming under pressure in other manufacturing centers, including India, which boasts the world’s largest vaccine-making capacity. Does Biden want other nations to learn hard lessons during the current pandemic about both China-reliant and U.S.-dependent supply chains?
Instead of persisting with a self-centered vaccine policy, the U.S. would do well to grasp the urgency of developing an actionable and durable American-led approach to China, which is becoming increasingly assertive, expansionist and authoritarian. In fact, the Quad’s unifying theme is opposing China’s aggressive expansionism.
Biden, however, has still to firm up his China policy. In fact, after his calls to Quad leaders, Biden telephoned China’s leader Xi Jinping on Feb. 10 and held a two-hour-long tete-a-tete. Then this month, the Quad summit and America’s “2 plus 2” dialogues in Tokyo and Seoul were followed by the high-level U.S.-China discussions in Anchorage, Alaska.
The parallel U.S. effort to reset ties with Beijing may explain why the two recent online Quad meetings — first between the foreign ministers and then the summit — focused less on the China challenge to a rules-based order and more on global issues like the pandemic and climate change. Vaccine diplomacy — as by India, which has donated more than eight million free COVID-19 vaccines — may aid projection of soft power. But the Quad, as a security coalition, has no need to project soft power.
If the Quad persists with prioritizing global issues over Indo-Pacific security challenges, it would blur its focus and encourage China to step up its coercive diplomacy through heavy-handed use of military and economic power.
The White House’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released this month says “we welcome the Chinese government’s cooperation on issues such as climate change, global health security, arms control and nonproliferation where our national fates are intertwined.” However, Biden’s effort to reset ties with China appears doomed, largely because Xi sees the change of the U.S. administration as offering him greater space to pursue his hegemony-seeking “Chinese dream.”
To be sure, Xi’s aggressive policies will ensure that the Quad continues to solidify and actively work toward establishing a new multilateral Indo-Pacific security structure. Even distant powers like France, Germany and Canada now view a rules-based Indo-Pacific as central to international security.
They are strengthening maritime collaboration with the Quad states. Last November’s “Malabar” naval war games — the first-ever Quad military drills — have been followed by “Sea Dragon,” an anti-submarine warfare exercise in January that involved Quad members and Canada, and the scheduling of another Quad-plus naval exercise, the “La Perouse” drills with France, from April 4.
As Biden develops strategic clarity on China, the Quad is likely to become the central dynamic of his Indo-Pacific policy. Xi’s renegade expansionism could even help build a grand international coalition, with the Quad at its core.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War.”
Donald Trump’s tough China policy is his most consequential – and constructive – foreign-policy legacy. Unless President Joe Biden pursues a similar approach, the erosion of US global leadership will become inexorable.
In his inaugural address, US President Joe Biden declared that Americans “will be judged” for how they “resolve the cascading crises of our era.” He expressed confidence that the country would “rise to the occasion,” and pledged that the United States would lead “not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”
The contrast with President Donald Trump’s divisive, isolationist rhetoric could not be sharper. But adopting a different tone is easier than reversing America’s relative decline. To do that, Biden will need to provide wise, forward-looking leadership. And that does not necessarily mean breaking with everything that Trump did.
America’s debilitating political polarization has undermined its international standing. Partisan considerations have hampered – even precluded – the pursuit of long-term foreign-policy objectives. US policy toward a declining Russia, for example, has become hostage to US domestic politics.
Biden’s calls for unity reflect his awareness of this. But the truth is that healing the deep rupture in US society may be beyond any president’s ability, not least because so many Republican voters seem to have abandoned all faith in evidence and expertise. So, rather than becoming consumed by domestic political divisions, Biden must rise above them.
And yet, there is one area where there is broad bipartisan consensus: the need to stand up to China. Trump understood this. Indeed, his tough China policy is his most consequential – and constructive – foreign-policy legacy. Unless Biden pursues a similar approach, the erosion of US global leadership will become inexorable.
The Indo-Pacific region – a global economic hub and geopolitical hotspot – is central to an effective China strategy. Recognizing the region’s immense importance to the world order, China has been steadily reshaping it to serve Chinese interests, using heavy-handed economic coercion, political repression, and aggressive expansionism to have its way from the Himalayas and Hong Kong to the South and East China Seas.
The only way to preserve a stable regional balance of power is with a rules-based, democracy-led order – or, as the Trump administration put it, a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Over the last year, this vision has spurred the region’s democracies to deepen their strategic bonds and inspired even the faraway democracies of Europe to implement supportive policies. Under the Biden administration’s leadership, countries must now build on this progress, creating a true concert of democracies capable of providing stability and balance in the Indo-Pacific.
Biden seems to understand this. He has made clear his intention to build a united democratic front to counter China. But he is also at risk of undermining his own vision.
For starters, Biden did not embrace the term “Indo-Pacific” until after his electoral victory, and when he did, he replaced “free and open” with “secure and prosperous.” But, whereas “free and open” automatically implies a rules-based, democracy-led order, “secure and prosperous” leaves room for the inclusion of – and even leadership by – autocratic regimes. This ignores the crux of the Indo-Pacific challenge: a revisionist China is actively seeking to supplant the US as the region’s dominant power.
Making matters worse, Biden has signaled a possible reset of ties with China. This would play right into China’s hands.
Trump’s China policy was not just about trade or human rights. It sent the (right) message that China is a predatory communist state without political legitimacy or the rule of law. This helped to tip the scales in America’s favor. Over the last year, unfavorable perceptions of China reached historic highs in many countries. While this was largely because of the made-in-China COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s ideological onslaught and China’s own aggression – such as on its Himalayan border with India – also played a role.
If the Biden administration abandons economic decoupling and treats China as a major competitor, rather than an implacable adversary, it will tip the scales in the opposite direction, relieving pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime and undermining faith in US leadership. This could embolden China to destabilize the Indo-Pacific further, with Taiwan possibly its next direct target.
Moreover, US conciliation would give India second thoughts about aligning itself too closely with the US, and would likely lead to Japan’s militarization – a potential game changer in the Indo-Pacific. It would also facilitate China’s efforts to leverage its vast market to draw in America’s democratic allies – a risk underscored by its recent investment deal with the European Union. All of this would undermine efforts to forge the united democratic front Biden envisions, compounding the threat of China’s aggressive authoritarianism.
The worst choice Biden can make is to seek shared leadership with China in the Indo-Pacific, as some are advocating. Worryingly, Biden’s team does not seem clear on this. In a 2019 essay, Jake Sullivan (Biden’s national security adviser) and Kurt Campbell (Biden’s “Indo-Pacific czar” at the National Security Council) championed “coexistence with China,” describing the country as “an essential US partner.”
To be sure, Sullivan and Campbell did not call for Sino-American joint hegemony, in the Indo-Pacific or beyond. But they also did not take the clear and necessary position that the US must forge a concert of democracies to bring sustained multilateral pressure to bear on China.
After four years of Trump, Biden is right to tout the importance of domestic unity. But a tough line on China is one of the few policy areas behind which Americans can unite. More important, it is the only way to ensure a stable Indo-Pacific and world order.
Large parts of the world are still reeling from the rampaging spread of the coronavirus, with renewed lockdowns in effect in many places. With every stricken country focused on tackling its COVID-19 crisis, there is little international generosity in donating large quantities of medicines or vaccines when demand for them is sky-high.
So, when India in recent days delivered millions of COVID-19 vaccines as gifts to countries in the Indian Ocean region, it attracted international attention.
More than five million Indian-made vaccines were airlifted last week to countries extending from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Mauritius and the Seychelles. And millions of more free vaccines are on their way this week.
The scale of India’s vaccine gifts is unrivaled. No other country has delivered millions of free vaccines to other nations — not even China, which has pursued its own vaccine diplomacy in a bid to repair the damage to its global image from the spread of the deadly coronavirus from Chinese soil. The gifts help to highlight India’s enormous vaccine-manufacturing capacity.
What stands out the most about India’s humanitarian gesture is that it was launched just four days after the country began vaccinating its own citizens, starting with health-care workers. On receiving the first shipment of Indian vaccines, the prime minister of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan called it “altruism” that “precious commodities are shared even before meeting your own needs.” The overseas vaccine shipments extend from India’s ambitious plan to inoculate its huge 1.3 billion population in one of the world’s biggest COVID-19 vaccination drives.
India’s free-vaccine diplomacy, however, has been driven by more than altruism. There are geopolitical considerations at play, including building goodwill and influence and countering China’s growing strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean region. Supplying free vaccines to combat a raging pandemic also seems a better choice for New Delhi than providing direct aid in another form.
One of India’s strengths is that it supplies more than 60% of the world’s vaccines against various diseases. Now it is leveraging that manufacturing heft by embarking on what has been billed as humanitarian diplomacy — the supply of free vaccines to countries in its extended neighborhood.
Its extensive vaccine-manufacturing infrastructure also explains why India, as research by Fitch Solutions suggests, will be able to inoculate most of its vulnerable citizens such as health-care workers and the elderly by mid-2021 — ahead of the much-smaller South Korea, for example.
India already has agreed to supply more than one billion coronavirus vaccines to various countries and to the World Health Organization-backed Covax initiative aimed at poorer countries. India is currently manufacturing two vaccines — the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, known in India as Covishield, and Covaxin, developed by the Indian pharmaceutical firm Bharat Biotech. Three other Indian companies are close to wrapping up development of their own vaccines.
Before India granted emergency approval to Covishield and Covaxin in early January, the privately-owned Serum Institute of India (SII) — the world’s largest maker of vaccines by volume and the leading production partner of AstraZeneca-Oxford — had already manufactured and stocked between 70 to 80 million Covishield doses. This large stockpile has meant that India has enough vaccines to share with other countries.
Furthermore, India’s rapidly falling coronavirus infections have given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government greater room to advance vaccine diplomacy. Daily new cases in India — a distant second to the United States in aggregate infections — have dramatically declined since last fall.
The international spotlight on the competitive vaccine offerings of the United States, Britain, Russia and China has helped obscure India’s role. Since the pandemic began, India has quietly donated or commercially exported crucial items that have encountered massive demand surges, such as COVID-19 test kits, personal protection equipment and medicines for coronavirus symptoms. India, the world’s leading supplier of generic drugs, shipped 50 million tablets of hydroxychloroquine to the U.S. last spring at then-American President Donald Trump’s request.
China, while exploiting its pharmaceutical clout for commercial ends throughout the pandemic, has thus far announced only modest vaccine donations. Its aggressive push to sell vaccines to developing nations, however, has suffered a setback after its leading inoculation candidate turned out to just 50% effective in late-stage trials in Brazil. Indeed, Brazil has turned to India, importing two million vaccines in recent days.
Against this background, will India’s vaccine diplomacy tangibly aid its foreign-policy interests? As more than 100,000 war-ready Indian and Chinese troops remain locked in a months-long Himalayan military standoff, India feels increasingly hemmed in by the expanding Chinese influence in its neighborhood.
India is hoping that, in contrast to the coronavirus’s indelible association with China as the country of origin, it will be remembered for helping many of its neighbors to immunize the vulnerable segments of their populations against the disease.
Still, with China spreading its influence deep into India’s backyard, New Delhi can scarcely reverse its eroding regional clout with just the goodwill generated from its large vaccine donations. India needs to do a lot more on a sustained basis. This demands it shed its intrinsic diffidence in favor of proactive diplomacy.
In fact, there is the question of whether India will bear the financial burden of supplying more free coronavirus vaccines to neighboring countries beyond the initial shipments. The issue whether such vaccines will be free for all of India’s own citizens has yet to be settled.
India’s large overseas shipments, however, belie the current Western narrative that wealthy nations are monopolizing the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and fueling a widening gap in access around the world. As with the shots against many other diseases, from polio and pneumonia to meningitis and measles, India is likely to be the largest and most-affordable source of COVID-19 vaccines, especially as new inoculation candidates enter into Indian production after approval.
In fact, the paradox is that many wealthy countries, especially in the European Union, have been slow to roll out COVID-19 vaccines, making India’s robust vaccine industry stand out as a model.
The Indian industry’s role will be central to ending the pandemic because only India has the vast infrastructure at present to meet the global vaccine demand. However, the extensive damage and five deaths from last week’s major fire at a new building at the SII campus were a reminder that, at a time when many low- and middle-income countries are depending on Indian production, unforeseen events could potentially disrupt supply of essential vaccines.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime Japan Times contributor, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.
President Joe Biden faces a slew of important foreign policy challenges. But with India, he has a historic opportunity to forge a strategic alliance to help build a stable balance of power in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region.
India has been a bright spot in U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades. Continuing a process set in motion by President Bill Clinton during the 1990s and accelerated by every succeeding administration, U.S.-India relations thrived during Donald Trump’s presidency. Not surprisingly, there is strong bipartisan support in both Washington and New Delhi for a closer partnership under Biden.
The Trump administration’s now-declassified “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” gives India pride of place in American strategy. “A strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China,” it states. The framework underlines the U.S. objective to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security” in the Indo-Pacific and as America’s major defense partner.
Trump’s standalone trip to India last year underscored how the expanding strategic partnership has become an important diplomatic asset for both countries. The visit is remembered by many Indians for Trump’s famous words at a huge rally in Prime Minister Narendra 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.”
Today, the United States is close to accomplishing what it has long struggled to achieve: co-opting India in a “soft alliance” built not on formal security obligations but on common interests. U.S. officials recognize that such an arrangement will bear little resemblance to the patron-client framework that was established in Asia during the Cold War, with Washington as the “hub” and treaty allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia as the “spokes.” No such arrangement would work with India today, for the simple reason that a country so large, especially one that values its strategic autonomy, cannot become another Japan or South Korea to the U.S. As then-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun stressed during a visit to New Delhi in October, the U.S. is seeking “not an alliance on the postwar model but a fundamental alignment along shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests, and shared values.”
China’s aggressive expansionism has helped drive India’s shift toward closer strategic collaboration with the U.S. A major turning point was China’s decision last spring to stealthily occupy mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in the borderlands of the northernmost Indian region of Ladakh. That move triggered the deadliest clash along the two countries’ disputed border in decades, and 100,000 war-ready Indian and Chinese troops are still locked in a military standoff.
The depth of strategic collaboration between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies will ultimately be shaped by Biden’s China policy.
Against this background, U.S.-India ties will remain close. However, the depth of strategic collaboration between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies will ultimately be shaped by Biden’s China policy. Biden has yet to clearly enunciate his approach toward Beijing or his overall Asia policy. If anything, Biden has fueled uncertainty over whether his administration will continue with Trump’s strategy, including by refraining from using the term, “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” coining a new phrase instead: a “Secure and Prosperous Indo-Pacific.” He has made no mention thus far of the Quad, which holds the promise of becoming a formal security arrangement. Biden, however, has done well to name the veteran Asia hand Kurt Campbell to the newly created position of Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council.
Will Biden spurn the Trump administration’s approach and seek to reset U.S. policy toward China and the Indo-Pacific? A softer U.S. approach toward Beijing is unlikely to help build the long-sought soft alliance with India. Given the bipartisan U.S. consensus and some of his own national security appointments, it is doubtful that Biden could return to the more-indulgent approach to China of the Obama administration, when Beijing engaged in mostly cost-free expansionism, including redrawing the South China Sea’s geopolitical map.
To be sure, there are also other issues, including Pakistan and human rights, that could impede progress toward India’s full involvement in the U.S.-led security architecture. A decision to restore U.S. security aid to Pakistan, for example, would set off alarm bells in New Delhi, as it would relieve pressure on Pakistan to curb its well-documented support for terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network, and unwittingly contribute to the growing China-Pakistan axis against India.
India’s domestic politics mirrors that of the U.S. in terms of hardened polarization, with a widening divide between liberals and conservatives. Trump refrained from commenting on contentious developments in India so as not to be seen as wading into the country’s domestic politics. But Biden has pledged a renewed U.S. focus on promotion of liberal values and human rights. In his presidential campaign, Biden criticized the Modi government’s suppression of dissent in the Muslim-majority territory of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as a new Indian law to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees that fled religious persecution in the three neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Critics have branded that law anti-Muslim. If the Biden administration were to be openly critical of such issues, it might embolden Modi’s critics while turning Indian public opinion against a closer partnership with Washington.
However, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was Indian, are likely to pursue a pragmatic approach that prioritizes deeper engagement with India. This will include clinching a much-sought-after trade deal with India, whose huge market is an increasingly powerful magnet for U.S. businesses; forging a partnership with New Delhi on climate change; and expanding defense ties. Such a balanced approach is appropriate, for no relationship between any two democracies is as important in today’s changing world than the one between the U.S. and India.
Brahma Chellaney is a geo-strategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).
At 78, Joe Biden is the oldest president in US history to assume office. The unprecedented security at his inauguration, which included neutralising any possible insider threat from National Guardsmen and police officers at the ceremony, underscored the new president’s challenges. Biden has come to power with about one-third of the American voters believing he stole the election, with the US Congress almost evenly divided between the two parties, and with America reeling from the rampaging spread of the coronavirus.
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.
The increasingly polarised and virulent US politics, however, will likely weigh down Biden’s agenda. Before the election, according to one survey, nearly 90 per cent of supporters of Biden and his rival Donald Trump believed that the opponent’s victory would bring lasting harm to America.
Indeed, Trump left office refusing to concede the election. He repeatedly alleged that the election was marred by fraud and irregularities and thus illegitimate. To be sure, Trump’s 2016 election victory was never accepted by many prominent Democrats, who sought to delegitimise his presidency by spinning a tale of his “collusion” with Russia. A partisan national media served as an echo chamber for the Russia-collusion story. Today, the base of the Republican Party reveres Trump even in defeat.
Biden has talked about unifying a divided America. But he has taken little concrete action thus far in that direction.
It will not be easy to heal the wounds after the recent developments, including the Trump-supporting mob’s storming of the US Capitol, the rushed second impeachment of Trump in the House of Representatives after just a four-hour debate, and Big Tech’s open display of its political leanings by targeting Trump and his supporters and by shutting down Twitter’s rapidly growing rival, Parler. After being kicked off US servers, Parler has been forced to turn to a Russian firm that routes internet traffic.
As William Barr, who served as the US attorney general until December 2020, has warned, “I think that when you start suppressing free speech, when people lose confidence in the media, and also when they lose faith in the integrity of elections, you’re going to have some people resort to violence.” Anger has deepened among conservatives, especially among many of the 74 million who voted for Trump and whose belief in a stolen election is now etched in their psyches.
The US is being torn apart by hyper-partisan politics. Tolerance for opposing views is increasingly in short supply. In this environment, fake news, conspiracy theories, fear-mongering and alternative narratives thrive. What keeps the US strong, though, is institutional resilience. Hardened polarisation hasn’t really dented national institutions, which remain by and large effective in helping to insulate the country’s economy and security from the effects of partisan politics.
Yet, there is a high risk that, like his predecessor, Biden in office could become an increasingly polarising figure, with Americans either loving or loathing him. Trump’s supporters already hate Biden. In fact, just as Democrats spent four years seeking to tar Trump with a Russia-collusion story, hardcore conservatives are already calling Biden the “Manchurian candidate” who, to quote the prominent right-wing commentator Mark Levin, was “bought and paid for by China.”
To compound matters, the new president’s decades-long political career shows that he has no firm convictions. Indeed, during the presidential election campaign, Biden made a habit of reversing his positions on major policy issues. Flip-flops are to Biden what egomania was to Trump as president.
FOREIGN POLICY UNDER BIDEN
Biden says he intends to reshape US foreign policy, including by shoring up alliances and by rejoining the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. But the “one America, two nations” problem at home could impinge on Biden’s foreign-policy agenda, as it did on Trump’s. Trump pursued a strange mix of avowed isolationism, impulsive interventionism and unexpected resort to force, as in early 2020 when the US assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s commando Quds Force. Trump’s critics rejoiced over Soleimani’s killing because they had been slamming his foreign-policy approach of relying largely on economic levers by rebuffing the preference of the US “deep state” for periodically employing military force to assert American power.
Trump, who railed against “endless wars,” was the first US president since Jimmy Carter not to start a new war. Trump ended the CIA’s large covert operation in Syria and worked to bring back home US troops from various theatres of conflict. But his itch to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan led him to cut a deal with the terrorist Taliban, handing Pakistan a major victory. Consequently, the old US-Pakistan-Taliban alliance is back in play in Afghanistan, with Washington’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban spawning an escalating wave of targeted killings.
Against this background, how will Biden’s foreign policy be different? Biden has promised to pursue a more predictable and multilateral approach and to help unite allies in concerted action on issues ranging from climate change to Russia and China.
But few seem to clearly know Biden’s thinking on major geostrategic issues.
In the presidential campaign, Biden’s theme essentially was that he wasn’t Trump. Biden made the election a referendum on the incumbent rather than a choice. Yet, without having a political base or articulating a clear vision, Biden won. In victory, the Democrats are trying to figure out what they stand for as a party. But the division between progressives and establishment forces runs deep in the party.
One thing seems certain: Despite Biden’s multilateralism rhetoric, he is likely to be more interventionist than Trump. In fact, most members of Biden’s national security team are considered “liberal interventionists,” or hawks on the left. It was the liberal interventionists who, under President Barack Obama, engineered the disastrous interventions in Libya and Syria and who, during the Bill Clinton presidency, spearheaded the NATO air war against Yugoslavia.
Biden’s protégé and now Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, supported the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the 2011 intervention in Libya, both of which turned the once-stable countries into failed states. Blinken hailed America’s occupation of Iraq as a success, claiming it had brought down violence and won grassroots support. As his critics point out, there isn’t a war that Blinken hasn’t loved.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, supported supplying anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, which President Obama opposed and President Trump finally delivered.
On China, however, the otherwise hawkish Sullivan has been an advocate of a conciliatory approach. For example, during a 2017 lecture he delivered on behalf of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, Sullivan said foreign policy expert Owen Harries was “right” to warn that “containment” is a self-defeating policy, much like acquiescence. “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,” Sullivan declared. He said the China policy needs to be about more than just bilateral ties, “it needs to be about our ties to the region that create an environment more conducive to a peaceful and positive sum Chinese rise.”
More recently, Sullivan co-authored an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs (September/October 2019) with Kurt Campbell, Biden’s “Indo-Pacific coordinator”—a new position inside the National Security Council. The essay argued for managed coexistence with China, saying China is a “formidable competitor” but also “an essential US partner.” So, containment is not tenable, it contended.
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 it, “The need for cooperation between Washington and Beijing is far more acute, given the nature of contemporary challenges.” But the key, it said, is for Washington to get “the balance between cooperation and competition right.”
In essence, the essay implicitly sought a G2-style condominium defined by competitive-cum-cooperative elements, with the rest of the world having to adjust to it. By suggesting China’s challenge and threat could no longer be addressed by the US alone, the essay, in addition to advocating the strengthening of US alliances, said that a US partnership with Beijing was indispensable.
The essay actually stood out for failing to look ahead. It listed four hot spots in the Indo-Pacific region but not the Himalayas, now the most dangerous flashpoint. In fact, it made no mention of India or the Quad or America’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy or economic decoupling. If anything, the essay reflected the Kissingerian thinking still prevailing in some US policy circles.
A former Chinese vice foreign minister’s call in a November 2020 New York Times op-ed for “cooperative competition” between the US and China sounded a lot like the “managed coexistence” idea proposed by Campbell and Sullivan in their essay, with both concepts implying a G2-style condominium. The ex-vice foreign minister, Fu Ying, wrote in her op-ed: “It is possible for the two countries to develop a relationship of ‘coopetition’ (cooperation + competition) by addressing each other’s concerns.”
The Trump administration defined the relationship with Beijing as pitting the US in deeply ideological, even existential, conflict with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). If Biden pursued US cooperation with China, it would help strengthen the CCP internally and externally.
Managed coexistence would allow China to manage the bilateral relationship largely on its terms, including protecting the CCP’s primacy. When Fu called for “addressing each other’s concerns” to build cooperative competition, she meant, as she herself put it, that the “United States should be respectful of China’s sense of national unity and avoid challenging China on the issue of Taiwan or by meddling in the territorial disputes of the South China Sea.” Addressing each other’s concerns also implies that the US must respect the fact, as Fu said, that China has a “different political system.” China cannot, and will not, change because, without ultra-nationalism as the CCP’s legitimating credo and without the Xi Jinping regime’s aggressive expansionism, the country’s political system would unravel.
Biden is unlike the four most recent US presidents: He has deep ties to the Washington establishment, including the lobbying industry, from his 44 years in the Senate and as vice president. No sooner had the media declared him the election winner than he named at least 40 current and former registered lobbyists to his transition team.
Biden, backed by Big Money, Big Tech and Big Media, was Wall Street’s favoured candidate in the election. But, thanks to US corporate greed, Wall Street also remains China’s powerful ally.
Furthermore, the national security team Biden has chosen isn’t free of the Cold War thinking that sees Russia as the main foe. Such thinking plays into China’s hands. Russia and China, as geographically proximate nations, have always been suspicious of each other’s intentions as they compete for geopolitical influence. But US policy, including sanctions against Russia, have brought two natural strategic competitors into ever-closer alignment.
More fundamentally, an interventionist foreign policy under Biden on issues other than China will raise concerns over the renewed influence of the so-called US deep state, which is centred in security and intelligence agencies. Many Republicans believed the deep state worked hard to topple Trump from power. Former Attorney General Barr publicly identified one such rogue actor—the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A “wilful if small” group at the FBI used the Russia-collusion claim to try and “topple an administration,” Barr said in an interview in December.
A NEW INDO-PACIFIC POLICY
The imperative in the Indo-Pacific is to build a new strategic equilibrium pivoted on a stable balance of power. A constellation of likeminded countries linked by interlocking strategic cooperation has become critical to help build such equilibrium. The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was authored by the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016 and subsequently became the basis of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy after Trump was elected president.
Biden has yet to clearly spell out his administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. There are signs, though, that Biden may replace the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy with a new policy. The Indo-Pacific strategy and China policy he adopts will be among his most-consequential foreign policy decisions. Biden’s China and Indo-Pacific policies will have an important bearing on Indian (and Asian) security.
On China, Biden has shown a striking lack of strategic clarity thus far. After he launched his presidential campaign in 2019, Biden stunned many with his apparent strategic naïveté by declaring, “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 strong blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
In stark contrast, Trump repeatedly pledged during his successful presidential campaign in 2016 to fundamentally change the relationship with China. After assuming office, Trump quickly abandoned the approach of his predecessors, from Richard Nixon to Obama, that aided the rise of China, including as a trade leviathan. Jettisoning his predecessors’ policy of “constructive engagement” with Beijing, Trump classified China as a “revisionist power,” “strategic competitor” and principal adversary.
Trump’s standing up to China explains why, unlike in Europe or the US, he has been popular in large parts of the Indo-Pacific, including in places as diverse as Japan, Australia, Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar and South Korea. According to one analyst, many Asians “saw Trump as a coarse but powerful leader of the free world against [Chinese] communist tyranny.” Even within China, Trump was admired by those concerned about President Xi Jinping’s increasingly arbitrary and despotic rule.
However, by the time Trump came to office and engineered a paradigm shift in America’s China policy, China had already emerged as his country’s most formidable competitor and as a potent threat to its Asian neighbours.
Assisting China’s rise was the “greatest” mistake of US foreign policy since the 1930s, according to Robert O’Brien, the last National Security Advisor under Trump. How did this blunder occur? “We closed our ears and our eyes. We believed what we wanted to believe,” O’Brien candidly said last year.
That blunder “created a monster,” as Trump admitted in 2019—a monster that will continue to haunt not only the US but also its allies and partners. Indeed, Asian countries, from Japan to India, are bearing the brunt of China’s rise as an expansionist power that openly flouts international norms.
When Biden assumed office, the US was locked in a trade war, a technology war and a geopolitical war with China, with the strategic and ideological confrontation between the world’s two largest economies beginning to reshape global geopolitics. In fact, by defining the CCP as the main threat to international peace and security and to the Chinese people’s well-being, the Trump administration signalled its support for regime change in Beijing.
Of all the actions of the Trump administration, the one that stung Beijing the most was the unremitting US offensive against China as a predatory state controlled by the CCP without any political legitimacy or rule of law. This ideological onslaught implied that regime change was essential for China to abide by international norms and rules. The paradox is that Xi himself, as the New York Times reported, “sees China and the United States as locked in ideological rivalry. Since coming to power in 2012, he has called for Chinese schools, textbooks and websites to inoculate youth against Western values that could erode party rule and the country’s ‘cultural self-confidence.’”
Meanwhile, US sanctions in the past year against CCP officials involved in the Hong Kong, Xinjiang and other crackdowns or in the South China Sea aggression have complicated Xi’s task of holding his flock together. US sanctions and visa restrictions against CCP cadres and their family members threaten to create internal disarray in the party by jeopardising important members’ interests, including their ability to keep money overseas and send their children to study in the West.
However, just when the Trump administration was on the cusp of forging an international democratic coalition against China, threatening the survival of Xi’s regime, Trump lost the election. The election loss set in motion tumultuous and riotous developments in Washington that could undermine Trump’s legacy.
UNCERTAIN DIRECTION UNDER BIDEN
Will Biden radically shift the Trump administration policy and treat China as a major competitor but not an implacable enemy, while also abandoning economic decoupling? Such a climbdown would mean a significant dilution of the US strategy to contain China, including reining in the relentless expansionism it pursues without regard to the diplomatic or geopolitical fallout.
Some close to the new US administration have fallaciously argued that China’s significant geopolitical and economic clout cannot be rolled back and that the country is far too integrated in the global economy for economic decoupling to be successful. In fact, some key members of Biden’s team believe that, instead of the US treating China as its primary adversary, Washington and Beijing should aim for shared leadership in the Indo-Pacific.
How will seeking shared leadership justify the united democratic front on China that Biden wishes to build? Can the US build a democratic coalition with the aim, not to contain China, but to employ major democracies’ aggregate geopolitical and economic heft to establish a modus vivendi with Beijing?
It is critical issues like these that have injected a layer of uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific landscape following the leadership change in the White House. The big unknown is whether America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and China policy will undergo structural shifts.
It is significant that, since Biden’s victory in the US presidential election in November, China has displayed a distinctly cocky tone in its official statements. It has also put its propaganda machinery in overdrive. What explains this? The Chinese communist publication Global Times has offered an answer: “Biden is likely to abandon or at least adjust” Trump’s “so-called Indo-Pacific strategy” and “fix ties with China.”
Xi’s regime, which presides over the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy, clearly saw Biden’s election win as a silver lining for China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, reposing China’s hope in Biden, said early this year that “a new window of hope is opening” and that the bilateral relationship with the US could now get back on the right track following a period of “unprecedented difficulty.”
The pressure that the Trump administration ramped up on China has exacted a heavy toll on Beijing, denting its international image. Negative views of China reached historic highs in 2020.
Until Biden’s election victory became clear, Beijing had sought to absorb the Trump administration’s unceasing attacks by essentially ducking them. It sought the moral high ground by decrying Washington’s return to the “zero-sum thinking of the Cold War era” and by claiming that it did not want to play into America’s hands by responding in kind (as if it could). In essence, China’s then posture implicitly conveyed that it could do little to deter the Trump administration’s attacks and thus was putting up with them without seeking to provoke greater US punitive actions.
But once a Biden win became apparent, Beijing began aggressively lambasting the Trump administration’s actions as extreme and crazy. More significantly, it started saying that, once the Biden administration took office, the US and China must come to terms with each other by opening dialogue. Seeking such a modus vivendi was also embedded in Xi’s belated congratulatory letter to Biden.
The Trump administration’s approach towards China, meanwhile, continues to be mischaracterised by many in the West as a “got-it-alone” approach. The truth is that the Trump administration ramped up pressure on China by resurrecting the Quad and giving it concrete shape. Trump may have weakened the trans-Atlantic alliance but, in the Indo-Pacific, his administration built the Quad into a promising coalition and upgraded security ties with key partners, including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and Thailand. It also established new US defence cooperation with Vietnam and the Maldives.
Biden wants to build a coalition of democracies to exert pressure on China. But this is exactly what the Trump administration sought to do. The Quad is an alliance of leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific. The Trump administration committed to establishing a concert of democracies, with India serving as the western anchor and Japan and Australia the eastern and southern anchors of an Indo-Pacific balance of power. This led even distant powers like France, Germany and Britain to view a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific as central to international security and to unveil their own Indo-Pacific policies.
Important democracies today are looking to Biden to provide strategic clarity on his approach to the Indo-Pacific. Holding a large Summit for Democracy, as he plans to do to help “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world,” can scarcely offer such clarity. The summit would represent a values-based, globalised approach standing in sharp contrast to the Trump administration strategy of regionally leveraging cooperation with democracies for geopolitical ends.
Biden has claimed the US doesn’t have leverage against China as yet. In reality, the Trump administration has bequeathed important leverage to the Biden team to capitalise on and deal with Beijing from a position of strength. However, if the Biden administration seeks to paint the Trump team’s China legacy in unflattering light, it will undermine that leverage and embolden Beijing to demand the repudiation and rollback of Trump’s actions. In fact, Xi’s regime is hoping that Biden will return to the accommodationist approach of the Obama period, when China created artificial islands and militarised the South China Sea without inviting US sanctions or any other international costs.
In this light, how the Indo-Pacific and China policies develop under Biden will help shape regional security and the Quad’s future. If Biden weakens America’s Indo-Pacific and China policies, it will raise serious concerns across Asia. It will also lead to questions about the inherent unpredictability surrounding US strategy and the wisdom of investing in closer strategic bonds with Washington in the first place.
Biden has already signalled the likely replacement of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Absent in the 2020 Democratic Party Platform and Biden’s campaign statements was any reference even to the widely used term “Indo-Pacific,” as if the Democrats wished to return to the old name that China prefers: “Asia-Pacific”. After his election, Biden started referring to the “Indo-Pacific” in calls with foreign leaders but not to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Instead, Biden coined a new phrase—“secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” Also, in apparent deference to Beijing, the Biden office readout left out the assurance Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received from Biden during a congratulatory call that US security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands.
Just before demitting office as the US vice president, Mike Pence asked the incoming president to “stay the course” and “stand up to Chinese aggression and trade abuses.” Pence called the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy “essential to our prosperity, our security and the vitality of freedom in the world.”
However, Biden thus far has given no indication how his “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” policy will be different from the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. A “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” which by definition doesn’t exclude autocracies like China, would imply the abandonment of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy’s goal of a rules-based and democracy-led order.
Furthermore, it is uncertain whether the Trump administration-initiated ideological offensive against the CCP as a threat to the Indo-Pacific and the wider world will survive under Biden. If it doesn’t, the CCP’s vicelike grip on China will endure, with its external aggression accelerating.
WILL BIDEN CO-OPT INDIA?
Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy approach will have an important bearing on Indian security and the direction of US-India strategic collaboration. China’s aggressive expansionism has already driven a tectonic shift in India’s security calculus, leading to closer defence and intelligence-sharing collaboration with the US and the signing of military logistics agreements last year with Japan and Australia.
The Trump administration helped midwife this tectonic shift by placing India at the centre of its Indo-Pacific strategy and seeking to forge a “soft alliance” with New Delhi. 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 towards India—renamed the US military’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.
Will Biden be able to build on that momentum in bilateral relations and formalise a soft alliance with New Delhi? The Chinese territorial aggression in the Himalayas has created a significant opening for Washington to bring India along.
China’s aggression has compounded India’s security challenges by turning the once-lightly-patrolled Himalayan frontier into a “hot” border. Beijing has also hung the threat of further military surprises, even as it deepens its strategic nexus with Pakistan to contain India. India henceforth will have to patrol the Himalayan frontier in a manpower-intensive way and raise additional mountain-warfare forces to help counter the growing Chinese threat.
Bolstering deterrence holds the key, as Indian forces cannot guard every nook and cranny of what is one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders. India remains committed to strengthening strategic partnerships with key powers in the Indo-Pacific.
The Biden administration’s co-option of India will be pivotal to building a constellation of democracies in the Indo-Pacific. After all, the other Quad members—the US, Japan and Australia—are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves.
India’s co-option, in fact, will ensure that the Quad becomes a de facto strategic alliance and starts playing a central role in a new multilateral security arrangement for the Indo-Pacific. That development, in turn, will serve as further evidence that the Xi regime’s aggressive policies are starting to backfire.
The momentum towards deeper US-India strategic collaboration, however, could perceptively slow if Biden’s foreign policy downgrades India’s importance in the Indo-Pacific strategy and returns to the Obama-era accommodationist approach towards China. If that happens, it would convince Indian policymakers to step up military modernisation so that India not only effectively counters Chinese threats and aggression but also starts imposing significant deterrent costs on Beijing. In any event, security across the Indo-Pacific, including US strategic interests, would benefit if India reinvented itself as a more secure and competitive nation.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.
America’s Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA), which became law recently, highlights Tibet’s geostrategic importance, including as the source of Asia’s great rivers.Passedwith bipartisan support, TPSA establishes a US policy that the selection of Tibetan religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama’s successor, is a decision to be made only by Tibetans, free from Beijing’s interference. It mandates sanctions against Chinese officials interfering in such processes.
Will America’s new law serve as a wake-up call for India to start reclaiming its leverage on Tibet? India already received a wake-up call in April-May 2020 when China stealthily grabbed key vantage points in Ladakh and then claimed, as in the Galwan Valley case, that they were historically part of Tibet.
Tibet is clearly at the centre of the China-India divide. And TPSA holds special significance for India, which gave refuge to the Dalai Lama and his followers, helped preserve the Tibetan language and culture, and kept the spirit of Tibetan independence alive. The Indo-Tibetan border was largely peaceful throughout history until China occupied the buffer Tibet in 1951, imposing itself as India’s neighbour and then waging war 11 years later.
The Chinese name for Tibet — Xizang, or “Western Treasure Repository” — underscores the great value this vast plateau, with its bounteous mineral and water resources, holds for China. On Aug. 29, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping directed that Tibet be made an “impregnable fortress” and its borders secured. The Chinese Communist Party has honed its repressive practices in Tibet before applying them in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and now Hong Kong.
India must realize that, by aligning its Tibet position with Beijing’s wishes, it has emboldened China’s designs against it. This is apparent from China’s latest aggression, which has triggered an ongoing, months-long standoff between more than one lakh Indian and Chinese troops in icy Himalayan conditions.
Today, China is claiming Indian areas on the basis of not any Han-Chinese connection to them but alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links. Simply put, China’s territorial claims in Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal are based on its claim over Tibet, which India, paradoxically, has acknowledged.
In fact, to tie India’s hands on Tibet, China has been quoting the 2003 agreement under which India formally “recognized” the cartographically truncated Tibet that Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” This recognition allowed China to advance its “salami slicing” strategy against India, including labelling Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet” and gradually increasing its incursions into Indian areas.
But make no mistake: that agreement has been nullified by China’s open violation of its key provisions, including that, “Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other.” China’s use of force to unilaterally change facts on the ground contravenes the agreement’s condition to “maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas” and work toward “the clarification of the Line of Actual Control.”
China has no legal standing to press India for compliance when its actions have knowingly gutted the accord, rendering it invalid in international law. Indeed, New Delhi has repeatedly stated that China, through its territorial aggression in Ladakh, has violated every agreement and commitment on border peace that the two countries have signed.
China’s recently unveiled Brahmaputra mega-project is another reminder for India to add nuance — and leverage — to its Tibet stance. No nation is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of transboundary flows than India because it alone receives 48.33% of the total river waters that leave Chinese-controlled territory. A Chinese communist publication recently asked India to assess how China could “weaponize” its control over transboundary waters and potentially “choke” the Indian economy.
While the Tibetans pray for the long life of the present Dalai Lama, Xi is waiting impatiently for him to die so that he can install a puppet as his successor, in the way China has captured the Panchen Lama institution. To frustrate his plan, India should tacitly help Tibetan exiles find, appoint and protect his successor. The Dalai Lama has said his “reincarnation will appear in a free country,” which could mean in India’s Tibetan-Buddhist Himalayan regions.
India must get its act together to help advance its interests. It should start referring to the Himalayan frontier by its correct historical term — the “Indo-Tibetan border” — and emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet was predicated on Beijing’s assurance (which it has broken) to grant the plateau genuine autonomy. India could appoint a special emissary on Tibet by stating that, although Tibet has ceased to be a political buffer with China, it should become a political bridge between the two countries.
To counter China’s growing challenges to its unity and territorial integrity, India needs to think and act creatively. America’s TPSA is significant because Tibet remains China’s Achilles’ heel.
If India is unwilling to exploit that vulnerability, the least it can do is to stop endorsing China’s stance on Tibet. This is necessary to help stem China’s aggressive Himalayan territorial revisionism and challenge its plan to control the spigot for much of northern India’s water. By cautiously recalibrating its Tibet policy, India can help elevate Tibet as an international strategic and environmental issue.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has been wrong on China almost his entire career. Will he finally get it right after being sworn in as president? Biden’s policy will help shape security across the Indo-Pacific region, including China’s behavior.
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 in international institutions — from the United Nations 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.
In a major speech on China in July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “Nixon once said he feared he had created a ‘Frankenstein’ by opening the world to the Chinese Communist Party” (CCP). Trump himself has acknowledged that the U.S. “created a monster.”
Aiding China’s rise was the greatest mistake of U.S. foreign policy in the post-World War II period. The U.S. actively contributed to the rise of its most formidable 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 Japan and many other Asian states have. The security costs of America’s China blunder are being borne essentially by Asians.
The year 2020 will be remembered for the China-inspired COVID-19 shock, with the dictatorship in Beijing seeking to capitalize on the pandemic. Consequently, negative views of China have reached historic highs in many countries, according to a recent survey.
Biden is assuming office at a time when an international pushback against China is clearly emerging. A number of important economies are now seeking a managed and selective decoupling from China in key areas. But if Biden proves a weak president, the pushback will ease — and the decoupling will slow.
Could Biden return to the softer approach toward China of the Obama period? Just months before he left office, Obama contended that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.”
Under Obama’s watch, Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on aggressive expansionism, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without firing a single shot or incurring any international costs. The same model Xi is now seeking to replicate in the East China Sea and the Himalayas, where China remains locked in a military standoff with India since May after encroaching on some Indian border areas.
Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken,said in July that a Biden administration would seek to make the U.S. more competitive and values-centered 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 dictatorship there.
Biden’s pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in aco-authored essay in the Foreign Affairs journal,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 contended.
The essay’s advocacy of “managed coexistence” with China is no different than “cooperative competition” that some prominent Chinese are promoting. Both concepts imply a G2-style condominium.
But make no mistake: A U.S. policy of “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 CCP’s primacy.
In 2000, Biden, as the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 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 a 2011 op-ed, Biden declared, “I remain convinced that a successful China can make our country more prosperous, not less.”
Just last year, Biden stunned many with his continuing strategic naïveté by declaring, “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, 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.”
In an interview this month, Biden surprisingly claimed that the U.S. doesn’t have leverage against China as yet. While promising not to immediately lift Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, Biden said he plans to get allies on the same page and have a robust U.S. industrial policy in place before finalizing a China strategy.
Such delay in crafting a strategy could help relieve pressure on Beijing. Biden can hardly lead a “unified front of allies,” to quote his words, without U.S. policy having strategic clarity.
In fact, even before taking office, Biden has signaled his intent to discard the Trump administration’s strategy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept originally authored by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Even the term “Indo-Pacific” was conspicuously absent in Biden’s campaign statements, while the 2020 Democratic Party Platform reverted to the use of the old term “Asia-Pacific.”
China strongly prefers the “Asia-Pacific” term. In recent days, Chinese state media have been urging the Biden team to replace “Indo-Pacific” with “Asia-Pacific.”
After his election, Biden 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.” Biden, however, has given no indication how his “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” policy will be different. The likely demise of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy will spur concern in the region about the inherent unpredictability surrounding U.S. policy.
Biden’s statement this week nominating Lloyd J. Austin as his secretary of defense made no reference to America’s biggest challenge, China. And instead of “Indo-Pacific,” it referred to “Asia-Pacific.” Austin’s own statement in response mentioned “Asia-Pacific,” not “Indo-Pacific” — a term that even European nations have embraced. Austin’s counterinsurgency experience in the Middle East scarcely equips him to deal with China’s expansionism.
Xi may see Biden’s election victory as a silver lining, but 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 U.S. bipartisan consensus on China. Managed coexistence, in fact, could be a recipe for America’s unstoppable 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.
China has long used U.S. corporate greed to get American businesses do its bidding. Wall Street remains its powerful ally.
China also has another ally in Washington — those who remain mired in Cold War thinking and see Russia as the main foe. Biden’s national security team isn’t free of that mindset, which is why the outgoing Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has urged Biden to acknowledge that China is the “greatest national security threat that we face.”
Without U.S. leadership, vision and resolve, a credible counter to Chinese expansionism and the CCP’s malign global agenda will never be convincing. This is why Biden must at the earliest provide strategic clarity to his China approach.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, Water, Peace, and War.
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 Timessaid 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.