COMMENT: India needs Biden as US president to end Trump’s extreme China provocation

India-US 1
India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, and the Foreign Minister, Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar with the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the US Defence Secretary, Dr. Mark T. Esper at the Joint Press meet after the India-USA 2+2 Dialogue, in New Delhi on October 27, 2020.Photo: Press Information Bureau (PIB), New Delhi.

By John Elliott

High decibel Mike Pompeo in Delhi as new defence agreement signed

Biden would give India more chance to re-set China relations

India needs the flexibility to rebuild its fractured relationship with China, but the Trump administration is restricting the options with high decibel confrontational statements about uniting against Chinese aggression. For this reason if for no other, a Joe Biden victory in next week’s presidential election would be good for India and, ultimately, good for Asia which does not benefit from the China-India conflict.


The risks of a fresh Trump presidency exacerbating relations between the two nuclear neighbors have been demonstrated in the past two days by Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, who declared during a high profile visit to Delhi that “the United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and to their liberty.”

He was accompanied for what is known as a “2+2 dialogue” by Mark Esper, the US defence secretary. Esper signed a long-delayed defence co-operation agreement that enables India to share sensitive American intelligence such as maps and satellite images that should boost the accuracy of missiles, armed drones, and other military action along its 3,488-km undefined border with China (known as the Line of Actual Control – LAC).

The agreement is the latest development in what is now called the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership that was begun by President Clinton nearly 20 years ago when the first of four defence “foundational agreements” were signed. The four now cover information exchange, logistics sharing, and access to communications equipment as well as this week’s agreement.

India’s former Congress government resisted being drawn into America’s embrace, frustrating US officials who regarded the country as a tiresome and unreliable potential partner.

Narendra Modi’s government has been willing since it came to power in 2014 to make progress, and recent events on the LAC have further sharpened its interest in accepting co-operation.

This will continue whoever becomes US president, but that does not mean that India needs the Pompeo rhetoric, which stems from Trump’s aim to isolate China over the origins of the Covid pandemic as well as trade.

India an “ally”

Two weeks ago, Pompeo said in a US television interview that India “absolutely need the United States to be their ally and partner in this fight” (though India has never accepted the “ally” tag).

China had massed “huge forces against India in the north. The world has awakened,” he added. “The tide’s begun to turn. And the United States under President Trump’s leadership has now built out a coalition that will push back against the threat.”

In Delhi yesterday, Pompeo referred specifically to 20 Indian soldiers being killed at Galwan on the LAC in June during an unprecedented violent brawl with Chinese forces. The US “stands with India to deal with any threat”, he said – without of course defining “stands with”, which would probably be little in real terms.

India clearly welcomes its defence agreements with the US at times when its army and air force are seriously underequipped with modern weaponry and support technologies.

But it also has to develop a new relationship with China because the Himalayan confrontation has effectively ended a long period of mostly stable diplomatic relations and economic trade and co-operation.

Peace and tranquility

“For the last 30 years, we have built a relationship predicated on peace and tranquillity along the border,” S.Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister and a former top diplomat and ambassador in Beijing and Washington, said in a recent internet discussion. If “peace and tranquillity” (a phrase that is recognized by both sides) was not ensured, and agreements about border security were not honored, he added, then other parts of the relationship could not remain the same.

Nirupama Rao, a former top diplomat who has held the same foreign service posts as Jaishankar, said in another discussion that the longer a new relationship with China was delayed, the closer India would inevitably become to the US.

The Quad countries

That is clearly what Trump and Pompeo want. They have successfully drawn India into a closer involvement in a US-driven alliance called the Quad, which also includes Japan and Australia and is aimed at maintaining a ”free and open Indo-Pacific” against the aggression of China’s president Xi Jinping.

Biden would not be soft on China. He has called Xi a “thug” and has taken a harder line than Trump on issues such as Tibet and the treatment of Uyghurs Xinjiang, as well as supporting Taiwan.

But his administration could be expected to take a more measured approach to India and accept that, though the two countries are firmly linked, India needs space to develop the new China relationship without rhetoric from whoever becomes secretary of state. (India also needs space, which Trump has reluctantly tolerated, to maintain its decades-long relationship with Russia, which is a major arms supplier, and with other countries such as Iran).

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, would probably not agree with this pro-Biden analysis because he has developed a strong relationship with Trump and has triumphantly shared platforms with him at mass rallies in the US and in India. The two men are extrovert populists who share many of the same values, though there have been sharp differences on trade and other policy issues.

Biden, and his vice president Kamala Harris (who has an Indian mother), would be far less tolerant of Modi’s extreme Hindu nationalism and of the treatment of Muslims. Harris has spoken against Modi’s cancellation last year of Kashmir’s Article 370 special rights. She also criticized Jaishankar when he opted out of a meeting in Washington ten months ago that would have included a pro-Kashmir Democrat member of the US Congress.

This could make the early months of Biden presidency difficult, though there would be common ground on other issues and Biden has spoken about wanting to work with India against terrorism and on China and trade.

Overall, Modi (and maybe Jaishankar) would certainly like Trump to win, but India overall would be better off with Biden.

Source- Riding the Elephant, 28 October 2020.

Neeraj Nanda

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