The US President-elect Joe Biden is on the horns of a dilemma. Trump went so far in painting China as the comprehensive threat to America, the West and the liberal world order at-large that doing a 180-degree policy turn and begin canoodling with Beijing is not possible. But, equally, Biden is concerned that Trump had made a collective response to arrest China’s uncontrollable rush to great power status difficult by hollowing out the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which has put that European alliance in a weaker position to handle a re-energized Russia under Putin. But Moscow, in turn, out of economic necessity as much as strategic calculation, is getting intimate with Xi Jinping’s China.
A potential Sino-Russian duopoly on the Eurasian landmass would separately encourage belligerent behaviour by Russia in Europe and by China in Asia. This threat is what ought to give Biden and his advisers conniptions. Especially because after two decades of futile wars that it has lost in Afghanistan, Iraq and in West Asia in general, the American people are in no mood for more military adventures or even peacetime deployment of US forces abroad.
It has left the US President to-be, Biden, with few, politically safe, options. The way out, the incoming Democratic party Administration figures, is for the US to not take on China frontally in Asia or Russia in Europe but to rely on America’s traditional allies to do the heavy lifting using NATO at one end, and its strategic partners, principally India, Japan and Australia, to keep China tethered, at the Asian end. Such a policy has the advantage of minimizing US’ commitments and costs.
Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State in-waiting, speaking to an American-Indian audience on Nov 23, before his nomination to become US’ chief diplomat was announced, articulated just such an approach. “We have a common challenge which is to deal with an increasingly assertive China across the board, including its aggression toward India at the Line of Actual Control, but also using its economic might to coerce others…to its advantage, ignoring international rules to advance its own interests, asserting unfounded maritime and territorial claims that threaten freedom of navigation in some of the most important seas in the world,” he said, during a virtual panel discussion on ‘US-India Relations and Indian Americans in Joe Biden Administration’.
“We have to sort of take a step back and start by putting ourselves in a position of strength from which to engage China so that the relationship moves forward more on our terms, not theirs,” Blinken said. “India has to be a key partner in that effort,” he added. “Unfortunately, right now by virtually every key metric. China’s strategic position is stronger and ours is weaker as a result of President Trump’s failed leadership,” he stated. “Put another way, this is really about us in the first instance, the competitiveness of our own economy and workers. The strength of our own democracy and political system, the vibrancy of our own alliances and partnerships. And of course, the assertion of our own values, all of which President Trump has done so much to undermine,” Blinken complained. He elaborated further, saying “During the Obama-Biden administration, we worked very hard to establish India as a key contributing member of the Indo-Pacific strategy. And that includes India’s role in working with like minded partners to strengthen and uphold a rules-based order in the Indo Pacific, in which no country, including China can threaten its neighbours with impunity.” “[India’s] role”, he averred, “needs to extend even beyond the region as vast as it is to the world at large…We would work together to strengthen India’s defence, and also add to its capabilities as a counterterrorism partner.”
In other words, Biden’s Washington will want India to be a frontline state in US’ great power confrontation with China and, military-wise, to contribute substantively. Blinken held out the usual inducements. Aware of how much Indian leadership hankers for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Blinken played up to Delhi’s craving. “In a Biden administration”, he asserted, “we would be an advocate for India to play a leading role in international institutions and that includes helping India get a seat on a reformed United Nations Security Council.” And knowing as well that Washington can get Delhi to eat out of its hands by merely making noises associating Pakistan to terrorism, he stated that “On the question of terrorism, specifically”, the incoming administration will “have no tolerance for terrorism, in South Asia or anywhere else: cross border or otherwise.” ( https://www.livemint.com/news/india/antony-blinken-india-has-to-be-a-key-partner-in-engaging-china-from-position-of-strength-11606201539220.html )
In tune with such Biden-Blinken views, the US Secretary of Defence-designate a retired Vice Chief of the Army Staff (2013-2016) General Lloyd Austin, responded by saying the right things. Austin suggested, for instance, that where China is concerned, the US should show “strategic patience”. Considered an officer with a fairly nondescript career record and an intellectual lightweight by those who are professionally familiar with him, he is unlikely to be disruptive and hence is considered a safe choice by Biden. Austin’s nomination relieves the pressure on Biden from his core constituency to appoint the first black man as boss of the Pentagon to reflect the fact that minorities constitute some 40% of the US armed forces. Given that most US Defence Secretaries in the past have been persons of renown, the nomination of a not particularly distinguished Austin was bound to be controversial. Biden has tried to nip the criticism of Austin’s selection in the bud by unprecedentedly taking to the pages of the Atlantic magazine to explain and justify his selection.
Recalling the General’s career, especially commanding a Division in Iraq where he exhibited a great deal of tact when dealing with leaders of various Iraqi factions, Biden writes about Austin serving as a “statesman”, about how he “oversaw the largest logistical operation undertaken by the Army in six decades — the Iraq drawdown” and, how as head of Central Command, he “executed the campaign that ultimately beat back ISIS” by “helping to build a coalition of 70 countries [working] together to overcome a common enemy.” Whatever Austin’s virtues, it will not help India any.
The problems that India will soon face — and the Modi government better be prepared for a much changed policy milieu in Washington — are two-fold. One, it will not take much for US’ “strategic patience” that Austin advises to convert to strategic reticence in militarily tangling with China. Just the first small crisis — such as as a FONOP (freedom of navigation patrol) by US warships challenged by the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea, or by an American carrier task group running into a Chinese naval flotilla in the Taiwan Straits, should do. Secondly, before his appointment as Vice Chief, Austin was Commander-in-Chief, US Central Command that includes Pakistan and Afghanistan in its operational ambit, but not India, which finds itself in an area that the Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific (previously Pacific) Command is responsible for. Austin is hence a known commodity to GHQ, Rawalpindi, but a stranger to Delhi. This could mean that the Indian government will be at a decided disadvantage in personally dealing with the new American Defence Secretary, even as Islamabad finds it easy to get its message across to Austin.
India may find a more sympathetic State Department but a less welcoming Pentagon, even as the reverse could be true for Pakistan.
In any case, the basic security situation India faces will remain unchanged from the last four years of Donald Trump’s presidency. India will have to fight China mostly on its own — in line with the Biden-Blinken policy of urging US’ Asian strategic partners to fight their own wars, singly or collectively, the best they can against an ambitious Chinese military itching for a fight. In the coming hostilities in eastern Ladakh and/or elsewhere along the Line of Actual Control it will, in the event, be foolish for the Indian government and armed forces to expect the US military to wade into hostilities alongside Indian troops against Chinese forces, or for the American ‘First Fleet’ — that is soon to come into being — to be in lockstep with the Indian Navy in a China-sourced contingency west of the Malacca Strait.