Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 US election has thrown India’s close ties with Washington into some doubt. Despite Donald Trump’s erratic behaviour and frequent Twitter eruptions, his policies generally benefited India. The fact that he was unconcerned with traditional American values like human rights, freedom of press, or (non-Christian specific) religious freedom allowed India to escape scrutiny and censure to which it might otherwise have been subjected. The well-known liberal politics of both President Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris are now a source of anxiety for a Modi government that made little effort to conceal its preference for Trump, even organising a mass reception for Trump almost as a warm sendoff before the US election.
Aside from the gnawing anxiety about restoring the trusting relationship Prime Minister Modi had cultivated with President Obama, South Block may also be wondering about Biden’s policy towards China. Although candidate Biden called the Xi Jinping regime a “thug”, Delhi remains concerned: Would Biden revert to his centrist roots or double down on Trump’s tough anti-China policies? Biden’s deep concerns about climate crisis and his appointment of former secretary of state John Kerry as the White House climate tsar also has caused concern. Might the US strike a deal with China in order to win cooperation on measures to fight global warming? How resolute would the US be in standing up to Chinese threats to Washington not to cross the ‘red line’ of what China calls its core interests involving its sovereignty?
So far, Biden has signalled that he intends to neither employ the aggressive language of former secretary of state Pompeo nor soften the stance adopted by his predecessor. Whether describing the repression of Xinjiang’s Uighurs as ‘genocide’, or affirming American support for Taiwan by inviting Taipei’s representative to the inauguration, the message is unambiguous. Testifying before Congress, then treasury secretary-nominee Janet Yellen said, “China is clearly our most important strategic competitor.” Her comment that China has been “stealing intellectual property and engaging in practices that give it an unfair technological advantage,” suggests Washington will maintain its tough posture on technology cooperation.
Secretary of state Anthony Blinken characterised ties with China as “the most important relationship that we have in the world,” adding that it increasingly “has some adversarial aspects to it.” Blinken told Congress that the administration would “impose costs for what China is doing in Xinjiang, what it is doing in Hong Kong,” but noted “cooperative aspects” such as combatting global warming. One of the areas where the two countries could seek compromise would be to reopen closed consulates and mutually restore visas to journalists.
Advocacy for journalism and free press, though, might cloud the growing Indo-American cooperation on countering China. While the US government has been careful in its comment on Indian farmers’ agitation noting that “peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy” a US embassy statement issued in Delhi pointedly mentioned another feature – “unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy.” Denial of internet access in the areas near the farmers’ protest has been widely mentioned in international media, including the now famous celebrity tweets that have so outraged the ministry of external affairs. In the bigger scheme of Indo-American security cooperation comments on farmers’ protest and internet ban may be of passing importance. But India’s growing sectarian conflict, and lurches towards authoritarianism as evidenced in recent months and widely commented in global media, could over the long term weaken American support for India.
During the campaign Biden talked about creating “a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behaviour.” Billed as a summit of democratic countries to deal with China, such a front would require India’s presence as a staunch co-anchor. But the political trend in India and signs of American discomfort don’t bode well for such a prospect.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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