India is a bipartisan success story: Secretary of State-designate Blinken, signals continuity in ties

As nominees begin confirmation process, pointers to Biden policies on India China, Russia, emerge

Updated - January 21, 2021 12:08 pm IST

Published - January 20, 2021 08:48 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Antony Blinken, U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State

Antony Blinken, U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State

India is a “bipartisan success story” said U.S. President Joseph Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State Antony Blinken , speaking at his confirmation hearing at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, making it clear that strategic ties with India will remain strong, especially on the Indo-Pacific, and continuity in dealing with China’s aggressive actions from the Trump administration.

“During the Obama administration, we deepened cooperation with India, particularly in the defence procurement area and also on information sharing, and I think the Trump administration carried that forward including with this concept of an Indo-Pacific and to make sure that we were working with India so that no country in the region, including China, could challenge its sovereignty, and also working with it on concerns that we share about terrorism,” said Mr. Blinken to a specific question on whether the defence ties would be closer due to China’s actions at the LAC, and killing of Indian soldiers in Galwan.

However, remarks he made about Russia and Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile system, that India hopes to receive later this year, indicate that might become an area for confrontation between New Delhi and Washington. “That one of our strategic partners should be in line with one of our biggest competitors, Russia, is just not acceptable,” said Mr. Blinken adding that he would study whether more sanctions under the CAATSA law would apply to Turkey for the deal. India is sending a military team to Moscow shortly for training on the S-400, making it clear that it is going ahead with the purchase, despite the possibility of U.S. sanctions over it.

Mr. Biden’s choice for Defense Secretary General Lloyd Austin and his nominee for Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines also began their confirmation process, giving key insights into future policy on security and foreign affairs. Other important appointments such as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell as “Indo-Pacific Coordinator” will not need confirmation, but all have indicated that a tough policy on China, renewed tensions with Russia, prioritising relations with the U.S.’s traditional alliance partners in Europe and East Asia and strengthening ties with India will form that policy.

Also read: 2020: A milestone in India-U.S. ties

“I would further operationalise India’s ‘Major Defense Partner’ status and continue to build upon existing strong defence cooperation to ensure the U.S. and Indian militaries can collaborate to address shared interests. I would also seek to deepen and broaden our defence cooperation through the Quad security dialogue and other regional multilateral engagements,” said Gen. Austin, to a question during his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Gen. Austin said Pakistan has taken “constructive steps” in the Afghanistan peace process and also “taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, though this progress is incomplete”. While this may run counter to New Delhi’s view, what is likely to raise eyebrows in India was his contention that the “security assistance suspension” or the cancellation of the Foreign Military Funding by the Trump administration could ‘impact’ Pakistan’s cooperation on Afghanistan and “dangerous escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack,” indicating the Biden administration could review the tough policy on Pakistan taken by their predecessors.

Ms. Haines made it clear that she supports an “aggressive stance” on China adding that as DNI she would “provide the necessary intelligence to support long-term bipartisan efforts to out-compete China…while also supporting more immediate efforts to counter Beijing’s unfair, illegal, aggressive and coercive actions, as well as its human rights violations”.

As it tries to revive the economy impacted by the pandemic and lockdown, India will follow the confirmation process of others, including US Trade Representative nominee Katherine Tai, who is known for her tough position on China, but is also likely to continue some of the strict trade policies of former USTR Robert Lighthizer, with whom the Modi government tried unsuccessfully for several years to forge a trade deal.

“As the world gradually emerges from the pandemic, India’s partnership with the United States will be governed by five broad baskets — healthcare, affordable pharma and vaccines, digital ICT, tech innovation and startups, cleaner energy, climate change, renewables including solar education and knowledge, partnership, and of course, strategic areas, including Indo Pacific,” said India’s Ambassador to the U.S. Taranjit Singh Sandhu, addressing a Delhi-based literature festival on Saturday.

Also read: Biden administration will place high priority on strengthening Indo-US relationship, says policy paper

Finally, India will continue to keep a close watch on Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken’s State Department nominees who might raise human rights concerns, after the comparatively less intrusive Trump administration. When asked, Mr. Blinken told The Hudson Institute in November that while they have “real concerns” over issues like India “cracking down on freedom of movement and freedom of speech in Kashmir, some of the laws on citizenship”, their approach would be to “speak frankly and directly” in a way that would strengthen the relationship.

South Block will no doubt take comfort from the fact that many officials in the incoming administration have held senior positions during the Obama administration. In an interview to The Hindu last month, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had referred to Mr. Biden’s appointees as “familiar figures whom we have worked with for many, many years”.

However, New Delhi will have to wait a little longer than usual to engage with key officials in the Cabinet, as the confirmation process through the Congress has been delayed due to the last few months of turmoil and allegations of rigging by outgoing President Donald Trump, and the ongoing process for his possible impeachment by the Senate and most of the appointments will need Senate confirmation, an official explained.

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