Under Biden, unfurling India’s foreign policy concerns

Nobody in the world is going to be sad about U.S. President Donald Trump leaving the White House next January, except, most likely, the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu — they had close links. Mr. Trump’s only real achievements in foreign policy were the agreements on establishment of diplomatic relations that he negotiated between Israel and a couple of the Gulf States; these will not be affected by the change in the presidency. The Saudis too will miss him, perhaps not as much as Mr. Netanyahu; they had in Mr. Trump someone who hated Iran as much as, perhaps even more than the rulers of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and Mr. Netanyahu cannot be sure what policy President-elect Joe Biden will adopt on the questions of West Asia peace plans and the nuclear deal with Iran-the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which President Barack Obama negotiated when Mr. Biden was the Vice-President.

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For us in India, there are two foreign policy issues which are of great concern and interest — China and Iran in that order. For the world, the equation between the United States and China may be the relationship of the greatest consequence. For India, the most consequential relationship is not with the U.S. — as is sometimes claimed — but one with China. What happens in greater West Asia will always remain of concern to us since we have a huge stake in that region, but those interests will not be affected one way or the other by who lives in the White House.

Quad dynamics and China

In the Trump years, India got into a pretty close embrace with the U.S. It signed all the ‘foundational’ agreements with America and bought billions of dollars worth of military hardware from them. The arms deals with the U.S. are a unique example when the country that buys tens of billions worth of arms has to be grateful to the vendor when it is a well-known fact that but for these sales, the military-industrial complex in the seller country will not be able to sustain itself. We resisted converting the Quad into a primarily military or strategic grouping, (what China perceives it to be) and is in fact aimed solely at containing China. The Quad is an anti-China coalition. How far it can be successful in containing the Dragon remains to be seen.

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The outgoing U.S. Secretary of State and his deputy were quite candid in declaring that: India needed America as an ally and that the Quad will have to be formalised in future. In other words, the Quad will have to be institutionalised and expanded by adding additional members such as Taiwan and South Korea. As the External Affairs Minister has stated, India will not join any military alliance. That might remain the case in form, but given the fact that all the other three, and perhaps five or six in future, are already in strategic alliance with one another and with the U.S., it is highly likely that India too will be forced to agree to some form of military alliance at a future date. The government must have come to the conclusion that: we are simply not in a position to deal with China on our own and that we need external support. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of non-alignment, asked the Americans for help at the time of the war with China in 1962.

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There is nothing wrong per se in asking for support to protect our territorial integrity although it is evident that all these initiatives such as the Quad are maritime agreements and do not have much bearing on our dispute with China, which is continental in nature. The satellite imagery which the U.S. may provide in terms of the latest agreement concluded with the U.S. (the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for Geo-Spatial Cooperation) might be useful but it does not negate the premise that no external power would want to get involved on our side in case of major hostilities with China. On the other hand, if there is a major skirmish or worse in the South China Sea, the other members of the Quad will expect us to join them in fighting China, in an area far removed from our shores.

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In addition to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Indian leaders also may miss Mr. Trump. If Mr. Biden adopts a more conciliatory approach towards China, we may find ourselves in a difficult situation. Since the U.S., under whatever presidency, will strictly follow its interests and may stage a somersault, we will be left alone in our confrontation with China. It is generally agreed that the U.S. has always needed an external enemy to keep its foreign policy focused, but that has not been the case so far with us.

In any case, we have the ‘other’ in the shape of Pakistan. (Mr. G. Parthasarathi, a very influential adviser to Mrs. Indira Gandhi once told me that it is good for India to always have some tension with Pakistan.) Do we need another ‘other’ in the shape of China? We do not want China to be permanently hostile to us; it will absorb huge resources, human and material. Invoking foreign threats with tough rhetoric might help domestically, but not always and not for long. The strong rhetoric employed in relation to China will need to be tempered. Public opinion which has been worked up against China may make it difficult to do so immediately but the government is efficient in managing and moulding public opinion.

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Handling Iran

As for Iran — the other issue where Mr. Biden’s policy will be of great interest to us — it may be difficult for Mr. Biden to quickly reverse Mr. Trump’s adventurist policy towards Iran. It may not be possible, given the domestic compulsions, to readopt JCPOA in its original form, but he will surely, if slowly, engage Tehran in talks and negotiations through Oman or some other intermediary, to reduce tensions in the region. We should hope that he will not maintain the harsh unilateral sanctions that Mr. Trump imposed on Iran. We may be able to buy Iranian oil, and sell our pharma and other goods to that country. The government may also feel less constrained in investing openly in oil and other infra projects in Iran, including the rail project in which Indian Railways Construction Ltd has been interested. The government need not feel disappointed at Mr. Trump’s defeat. After all, he too was not all that sentimental about India; he did threaten us with ‘consequences’ if we did not give hydroxychloroquine pills to America.

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, a former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was Special Envoy for West Asia in the Manmohan Singh government

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 5:39:44 PM |

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