Indo-Pacific International

Alignment of U.S. and Indian interests ‘makes a great difference’, says Biden’s envoy nominee to Beijing

U.S. Ambassador to China nominee Nicholas Burns speaks during a hearing to examine his nomination before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on October 20, 2021.   | Photo Credit: AP

U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee for the post of Ambassador to Beijing, Nicholas Burns, said the alignment of U.S. and Indian interests in the Indo-Pacific “makes a great difference” in terms of the challenges posed by China.

Mr. Burns was answering a question on the U.S.’s opportunities and constraints in collaborating with different countries while dealing with Beijing.

“The comparative advantage that we have versus China is that we have treaty allies. We have partners who deeply believe in us and the Chinese really do not,” Mr. Burns said, highlighting U.S. President Joe Biden’s emphasis on treaty partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, such as with Japan, Australia, South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia. He also mentioned India, which is not a treaty partner with the U.S., but a ‘Major Defence Partner’ and a country that regularly holds bilateral and multilateral security exercises with the U.S.

“As you know — and I think every administration since President [Bill] Clinton has been working on this — we have a newfound security partner in India, that makes a great difference to have Indian and American interests aligned as they clearly are, strategically, in the Indo-Pacific,” Mr. Burns said.

As a foreign services officer, Mr. Burns had played a key negotiating role in the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. He held senior positions in both Democrat and Republican administrations — a point that came up during his hearing. Currently Mr. Burns is a professor at the Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Giving credit to former President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for reinvigorating the Quad grouping of countries, Mr. Burns said President Biden had organised two leader-level meetings of the Quad already. He also said the U.S.’s newly launched security partnership with the U.K. and Australia (AUKUS) was “transformational”.

Opinion | A ‘Taiwan flashpoint’ in the Indo-Pacific

Overall, Mr. Burns said he would support the Biden administration’s policy of “vigorously” competing with China in some areas (economy, infrastructure, technology) and cooperating in other areas (such as climate action), while also holding China accountable for its actions in the Indo-Pacific. Mr. Burns also supported the U.S. speaking out against human rights abuses in China, and said that genocide was occurring in Xinjiang.

‘China not an Olympian power’

“…The People’s Republic of China is not an Olympian power. It’s a country of extraordinary strength, but it also has substantial weaknesses and challenges, demographically, economically, politically, we should have confidence in our strengths,” he said.

Beijing’s recent actions towards Taiwan (China has sent a record number of jets into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone this month) were “especially objectionable”, Mr. Burns said. However, he added that the U.S. is right to continue its ‘One China’ policy — a policy that recognises that there is only one legal government of China but is compatible with the U.S. providing military assistance to Taiwan (as outlined in the U.S.’s Taiwan Relations Act of 1979).

“Given what China has done … I think the Congress and the executive branch have every right to continue to deepen our security cooperation, to expand our arms provisions to Taiwan. That’s the most important thing we can do,” he said, adding that the Act also called for providing the strongest possible deterrent in the ‘Western Pacific’ (Indian Ocean).

“As a third measure, we ought to be asking and we are asking our allies, to show a real commitment to Taiwan and we’re seeing that from Japan and other allies,” he said, adding that the U.S. had to be very clear in criticising China on its actions against Taiwan.

At various points in his testimony, Mr. Burns said it was important for the U.S. to work with both Indo-Pacific partners as well as European allies with regard to the challenges from Beijing. In response to a question on whether allies were “retreating” , i.e., shying away from confronting challenges with China, he said he was not observing that.

“I don’t see retreat. Certainly I think we’re seeing a stiffening of the resolve of Japan, which is so important for us. Australia, rock solid on these issues. India…not a treaty ally but a strategic military partner in the Bay of Bengal …[is] very important for us,” he said.

On Europe, he said countries had different views and that the German position would be clear once the new government was formed — the views of the Social Democrats and Greens being key.

“I would note that the Greens were very critical of China during the recent campaign,” he said, adding that in France, President Emmanuel Macron had spoke out about China too. The U.S. and France have recently been mending fences over a rift in their relationship over France being left out of AUKUS. Mr. Macron had, at the time, called for greater decoupling between the U.S. and the European Union in terms of foreign policy.

The confirmation hearings of Rahm Emanuel, former Mayor of Chicago, who is the administration’s nominee to Tokyo, and entrepreneur Jonathan Kaplan, the nominee to Singapore, were also conducted conducted on Wednesday. A confirmation date has not been announced for Mr. Biden’s pick for New Delhi, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.


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