Of course, it matters to India who becomes the US Secretary of State. With Anthony Blinken named by President-elect Joe Biden as his Administration’s chief diplomat, American foreign policy will regain its familiar moorings. Relieved traditional allies in Europe and Asia who had been asked to do the unthinkable — pay for the hitherto free ride on security the departing president Donald Trump had accused them of, will clamber back on to the US bandwagon, hoping a friendlier White House will not insist on reimbursement of the costs of stationing American troops on their soil. Except, it won’t at all be easy for the Biden regime to reverse any of Trump’s disruptive policies. Simply because NATO allies and Japan and South Korea, who began contributing more, per Trump’s demands, to the costs of collective security helped reduce US deficits somewhat and why is that not welcome news for the incoming government? This is now the new beneficial normal that Washington will do nothing to disturb.
Likewise, the transactional contours of Trump’s India policy will be hewed to by the incoming Biden dispensation and the frame of “strategic partnership” will stay fleshed out in the Trumpian manner. This country enjoyed absolutely no favours with Trump at the helm. The situation will not change substantially with Biden-Blinken at the wheel. Except on the policy margins. With Kamala Harris as Vice President, there will, for instance, be some easing of the visa rules to facilitate “family reunions” and to permit spouses of temporary H1B visa holders to seek employment — rules that Trump had tightened. But, with the ranks of the unemployed rocketing in these pandemic times as also the matching social welfare costs, removing visa restrictions on Indian techies will not be a Biden priority. Especially because he has promised economic policies to dissuade outsourcing of corporate back-office operations, software development, etc. and to incentivize US corporations into “in- sourcing”, bringing production units back to America. It is a policy followed from the Obama era. The result will be a continuation of Trump’s visa policies in all but name and active encouragement to US companies to shift their manufacturing hubs from China, not to India, but back to America.
This will be easy for Biden to do. Because, unlike the ‘little dragons’ of Southeast Asia, principally Vietnam, who very early configured extremely welcoming industrial milieus complete with skilled work forces in place, and attracted the first wave of Western manufacturing industries getting out of China, the Modi government in the last six years just talked, and talked some more, about India’s great demographic dividend, held investment melas, got Amitabh Kant of the Niti Ayog to paint bright jargon-laced pictures of an “economically vibrant India”, but did next to nothing in terms of actually improving the country’s “ease of doing business” standing, skilling the youth for advanced manufacturing jobs, or tackling the uncontrolled level of corruption faced by the ordinary citizen, what to speak of companies and corporations who keep tax officers and regulators off their backs by bribing them heftily. Transparency International has just published its annual ‘Global Corruption Barometer 2020’ and, despite all the digitizing, deregulating and improving the performance of government staff — the beat policeman, patwari/tehsildar on up, India is revealed as the most corrupt country in Asia, with a corruption rate of 39% (compared to 2% for the Maldives, which is in the same category as Japan!). Has any Indian media reported these findings? For the report see https://images.transparencycdn.org/images/GCB_Asia_2020_Report.pdf
Predictably in this context, foreign investors came, saw, shook hands with the Prime Minister, and got the hell out, preferring to invest in the more orderly and speedily-modernizing Vietnam and even in Bangladesh — fast rising as a middle income country and magnet for global industry in the subcontinent. Noting the trends, a leading article in the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, gleefully called India “the sick man of South Asia”.
So, which American companies now in Asia, you think, will be targeted to close shop? Not the ones surely that already have their factories humming in Vietnam or Bangladesh, say, and making profits and prospering. Rather, it will be the companies which, espying the potentially vast Indian market are inclined, despite the horrible economic indices and bureaucratic obstacles, to set up presence in India. Because they have no stakes in India, as they do in Southeast Asian states, they can be more easily persuaded by tax concessions and other devices that the Biden Admin will soon roll out, to return home. So Delhi cannot reasonably expect to gain much on the economic or trade front, other than the US pushing India to buy more high-value military hardware — the hardy policy perennial when it comes to bilateral commerce!
The one positive that Trump’s Asia policy carried was its hostility to China. The Biden-Blinken duo are set to lessen the trade and military pressure on Beijing. Because, like Obama, Biden believes in a concordat with the Chinese. Recall that it was, in Modi’s words “my friend Barack”, who first talked of G-2, a consortium of the US and China running the world, an idea Xi Jinping quickly cottoned on to. This was bad news for India then; it will be an even worse development should it ever come to pass. In the main because the belligerent posture of the US Navy — the talk of a new fleet just for operations in the Indo-Pacific, designated the US First Fleet, notwithstanding, will be watered down with Washington hereafter striving to avoid military confrontation with China. For many in the Indian government, who seem not to understand this fact of life, let me put it bluntly: India will alone have to deal with China; there will be no US cavalry riding to the rescue of us Indians.
As to statements by Blinken, in his previous avatars as adviser to Vice President Biden, promising India military high-technologies, well, it turns out the Indian foreign policy establishment distinguished by its high gullibility quotient, are all in and happily parroting this line with a couple of former Indian ambassadors to the US in the van! The fact is Americans long ago realized that all they need to do is dangle the “transfer of military high-technology” carrot to get the Indian donkey to go where ever Washington wants it to. This has been happening from Prime Minister Vajpayee’s days. India has not received a single US-sourced high-technology to-date, all the talk of collaborations on advanced technology development vide the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, etc. have proved to be so much hogwash. The real US intention to string India along is evidenced in Trump abruptly pulling the US out of the underway joint project to produce a high-performance jet engine for combat aircraft.
Even as India got nothing, consider all that the good vibes and warm embraces fetched the US over the last two decades: the 2005 civilian nuclear deal (negotiated by minister S Jaishankar as MEA Joint Secretary) capped Indian nuclear weapons technology at the low-yield fission level; and the “foundational accords” — GSOMIA, LEMOA, COMCASA, and BECA, pulled India fully into the American orbit. These agreements have, at a stroke, robbed India of its “strategic autonomy” and signaled to Asia and the world India’s newly minted status as a US hanger-on. Wow! Some exchange this!
Reminds me of the bargain the European settlers obtained — buying Manhattan Island from those other Indians for a few shiny beads!