US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy moves in the first few months of his assuming office have signaled a renewed commitment to the Indo-Pacific, building on the policies of his predecessor Donald Trump, while at the same time showcasing some significant shifts. Since Biden took charge in January this year, ‘America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy’[i] is the key message the new administration has been putting out with a view to re-build alliances and re-establish the US as a multilateral team player, departing from Trump’s unpredictable and transactional approach which had left even traditional allies anxious about Washington’s reliability.
The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (INSSG)[ii] released in March puts the geopolitical locus on the Indo-Pacific, besides Europe and the Western hemisphere, with the US seeking to maintain a robust presence in the region even as it gradually shifts its gaze away from the Middle East. In his maiden address to the Congress, marking his 100th day in office, Biden said that in his conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping he had stated that the US “will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific just as we do with NATO in Europe – not to start conflict – but to prevent conflict”.[iii]
While the Interim Guidance states the need to “deepen” ties with India, China, and Russia as the “increasingly assertive” and “destabilising” powers, respectively, have been portrayed as the main challengers. China’s belligerence and disregard for well-established international norms have been a cause for concern. In February, a Department of Defence China Task Force was set up by the Biden administration “to provide a baseline assessment of department policies, programs and processes” to draw up a strategy to meet the China challenge.[iv] However, unlike Trump’s abrasive approach towards China, Biden’s stance appears more nuanced based on ‘competitive cooperation’ rather than all-out confrontation. Following a Xi-Biden call in February, a State Department spokesperson said that even though “we see this relationship through the lens of competition”, “we will engage the Chinese when it is consistent with our interests, and consistent with our values.[v]
Similarly, although Biden has preserved tariffs imposed by Trump on Chinese goods,[vi] sanctioned Chinese officials for human rights violations,[vii] designated some Chinese companies as threats to national security,[viii] a recent virtual meet between the US trade representative Katherine Tai and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He outlined the “importance of the trade relationship”[ix] between the two countries. The Chinese Commerce Ministry said in a statement that the talks were “candid, pragmatic and constructive exchanges with an attitude of equality and mutual respect”.[x] Biden has stressed that his foreign policy will be domestically driven, which means engagement with China is also an economic imperative. Meanwhile, the Chinese President was seen attending a US-led virtual climate summit last month indicating the two sides’ willingness to co-operate on issues confronting the world.[xi]
In keeping with the eastward tilt and an eye on China, Biden’s first multilateral engagement was a virtual meet with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) group comprising of Australia, India, and Japan,[xii] while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin’s first diplomatic visits were to Asia – Japan, South Korea, and India,[xiii] reaffirming US commitment to investing in key regional partnerships and alliances.
Reflecting the emphasis on the Indo-Pacific, the largest contingent of the national security team will be the Indo-Pacific directorate comprising of about 15-20 members.[xiv] In addition, Pentagon’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) – akin to the European Defence Initiative (EDI) set up in 2014 to deter Russia – has proposed a USD 27 billion plan to bolster capabilities by ‘deploying long-range missiles, new missile defenses and sensor networks’ across the Western Pacific in a bid to counter China.[xv]
Given the diverse mix of partners and allies in Asia, how well the US is able to work around their individual strategic and economic interests will be critical in determining Washington’s long-term success in the Indo-Pacific.
Implications for India
Continuity in the US’ Indo-Pacific policy along with a thrust to reinvigorate engagements with partners and allies is very much in India’s interests. Besides opportunities it presents in the enhancement of trade, refashioning of supply chain resilience, and capacity building, for India the US is an essential partner for keeping China’s growing ambitions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in check. The US has pushed for a prominent role for India in the IOR, as seen in the deepening defence cooperation, while it focuses more on the Western Pacific. The US Secretary of Defence, who was recently in New Delhi, termed India “a central pillar” of Washington’s approach to the region.”[xvi]
The India-US defence ties have been on an upward trajectory in the last few years with New Delhi signing several strategic pacts including the four US military foundational agreements – LEMOA, COMCASA, BECA, GSOMIA – necessary for interoperability.[xvii] New Delhi has inked defence deals worth approximately USD 20 billion with Washington in the last 13 years.[xviii] The Trump administration had prioritised capacity-building assistance to bolster India’s maritime surveillance capability. India’s Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region’s (IFC-IOR) intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts are anchored on US-made P-8 aircraft.[xix] US’ continued strategic competition with China signifies further bolstering of US-India defence co-operation.
As mentioned earlier, while Biden appears to be tailoring a more pragmatic approach towards China – one of co-operating where they can, and deterring where they must – India needs to carefully craft its own strategy to navigate the choppy geopolitical waters adroitly while maintaining strategic and decisional autonomy. New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific approach is anchored in Quad, however, it cannot lose sight of the fact that it is the only country in the US-led Quad grouping that has a live border with China, with an ongoing territorial dispute that has put the relationship between the two countries under tremendous strain. In addition, while all the Quad countries are heavily dependent on trade with China, for India, China is also its biggest trading partner,[xx] hence, until India achieves its goals of self-reliance in all spheres, a well-defined pragmatic blueprint is necessary to deal with the northern neighbour.
Meanwhile, the US’s stance on Russia could be a prickly issue for New Delhi to navigate given the looming US sanctions on the S-400 air defence system deal.[xxi] However, going by Washington’s foreign policy moves so far, including the upcoming summit between the US President and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin “seeking to restore predictability and stability to the US-Russia relationship”[xxii], Biden seems more inclined for engagement than confrontation which could well be in India’s interests.
[i] “Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World”, The White House, 04 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/04/remarks-by-president-biden-on-americas-place-in-the-world/ accessed on 13 May 2021.
[ii] “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance”, The White House, 03 Mar 2021. Available on https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/03/interim-national-security-strategic-guidance/ accessed on 13 May 2021.
[iii] “Remarks by President Biden in Address to a Joint Session of Congress”, The White House, 29 April 2021. Available on https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/04/29/remarks-by-president-biden-in-address-to-a-joint-session-of-congress/ accessed on 14 May 2021.
[iv] Jim Garamone (2021), “Biden Announces DOD China Task Force”, US Department of Defense, 10 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2500271/biden-announces-dod-china-task-force/ accessed on 27 May 2021.
[v] Department Press Briefing, US Department of State, 11 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-february-11-2021/accessed on 27 May 2021.
[vi] “China-US trade: Beijing urges Washington to remove tariffs”, Aljazeera, 22 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/22/senior-chinese-diplomat-urges-the-us-to-remove-tariffs accessed on 27 May 2021.
[vii] Sriram Lakshman (2021), “U.S. sanctions two Chinese officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang province”, The Hindu, 22 Mar 2021. Available on https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/us-sanctions-two-chinese-officials-for-human-rights-abuses-in-xinjiang-province/article34135384.ece accessed on 27 May 2021.
[viii] David Shepardson (2021), “Five Chinese companies pose threat to U.S. national security: FCC”, Reuters, 12 Mar 2021. Available on https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-tech-idUKKBN2B42DW accessed on 27 May 2021.
[ix] “Readout of Ambassador Tai’s Virtual Meeting With Vice Premier of China Liu He”, Office of the United States Trade Representative, 26 May 2021. Available on https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/may/readout-ambassador-tais-virtual-meeting-vice-premier-china-liu-he accessed on 03 June 2021.
[xi] Nectar Gan and James Griffiths (2021), “The latest area of competition between the US and China: Saving the world”, CNN, 23 Apr 2021. Available on https://edition.cnn.com/2021/04/23/china/china-us-climate-mic-intl-hnk/index.html accessed on 27 May 2021.
[xii] “Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: “The Spirit of the Quad”, The White House, 12 Mar 2021. Available on https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/12/quad-leaders-joint-statement-the-spirit-of-the-quad/ accessed on 14 May 2021.
[xiii] “Secretary of Defense’s Trip to Asia to Focus on Strengthening Partnerships With Japan, Korea, India”, US Dept of Defense, 10 Mar 2021. Available on https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2532117/secretary-of-defenses-trip-to-asia-to-focus-on-strengthening-partnerships-with/ accessed on 14 May 2021.
[xiv] Ken Moriyasu (2021), “Biden’s Indo-Pacific team largest in National Security Council”, Nikkei Asia, 11 Feb 2021. Available on https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Biden-s-Asia-policy/Biden-s-Indo-Pacific-team-largest-in-National-Security-Council accessed on 27 May 2021.
[xv] Joseph Trevithick (2021), “This Is The Pentagon’s $27 Billion Master Plan To Deter China In The Pacific”, The Drive, 05 Mar 2021. Available on https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/39610/this-is-the-pentagons-27-billion-master-plan-to-deter-china-in-the-pacific accessed on 27 May 2021.
[xvi] PTI (2021), “Elevating US-India defence partnership priority of Biden administration: Lloyd Austin”, The Economic Times, 20 Mar 2021. Available on https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/elevating-us-india-defence-partnership-priority-of-biden-administration-lloyd-austin/articleshow/81604017.cms?from=mdr accessed on 12 May 2021.
[xvii] Lakshi Bhatia (2020), “What the 4 Indo-US Defence Agreements Mean for India”, Times of India, 14 Nov 2020. Available on https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/what-the-4-indo-us-defence-agreements-mean-for-india/articleshow/78949570.cms accessed on 12 May 2021.
[xviii] Rajat Pandit (2020), “How defence partnership ringfences ties between India and US”, The Times of India, 23 Feb 2020. Available on https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/how-defence-partnership-ringfences-ties-between-india-us/articleshow/74262419.cms accessed on 14 May 2021.
[xix] Kashish Parpiani (2021), “US FONOP in India’s EEZ is indicative of Biden’s agenda for US-India defence ties”, ORF, 13 Apr 2021. Available on https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/us-fonop-india-eez-indicative-biden-agenda-india-us-defence/ accessed on 27 May 2021.
[xx] Indivjal Dhamsana (2021), “China becomes India’s biggest trading partner in first 9 months of FY21”, Business Standard, 24 Feb 2021. Available on https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/china-becomes-india-s-biggest-trading-partner-in-first-9-months-of-fy21-121022400018_1.html accessed on 06 June 2021.
[xxi] Dinaker Peri (2021), “Delivery of S-400 missile systems to begin by November”, The Hindu, 13 Apr 2021. Available on https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/delivery-of-s-400-missile-systems-to-begin-by-november/article34312445.ece accessed on 14 May 2021.