G Parthasarathy

The Biden view of the Indo-Pacific

| Updated on January 25, 2021

Joe Biden   -  Reuters

The US appears not just keen to strengthen ties with India, but also recognises the importance of the Quad to rein in China

India’s political leaders, diplomats, journalists and scholars, now have a clear view about the thinking of the Biden Administration. Some of them have met President Joe Biden himself. Others have interacted with senior personalities, ranging from Secretary of State Antony Blinken and William Burns as Director CIA, to Special Envoy for Climate Change, John Kerry, Jake Sullivan as National Security Adviser, and Kurt Campbell as the “Indo-Pacific Coordinator” in the White House.

The President himself has a clear idea of the India-US relationship from his days as Barrack Obama’s Vice-President. More importantly, as Head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he spearheaded moves in the Senate by President George Bush to end nuclear sanctions against India.

Vice-President Kamala Harris has naturally held her counsel till she familiarises herself on the views of the President, on the complexities of important foreign policy and national security issues.

In a recent article, which he authored, Kurt Campbell drew attention to what were obvious concerns at the free trade deal that the European Union had concluded with China.

The European powers deeply distrusted and disliked President Donald Trump. Campbell, reflecting Biden’s views, has ideas about integrating US-European policies on China, and the Indo-Pacific. The move to appoint Campbell came just a day after the White House declassified a document outlining the Trump administration’s appraisal of the objectives of the Indo-Pacific region, which cited India as a ‘counterbalance’ to the growing influence of China in the region. President Biden and others also have deep concerns about the brutal treatment of Muslim Uighurs in China.

It is also evident that the Biden Administration recognises the importance of the Quad, especially as Pakistan will now be providing naval base facilities to China in two sites in its Sind Province. These ports will supplement Chinese naval base facilities in Gwadar, in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province.

Afgan policy

US Defence Secretary-General Lloyd Austin’s views on Afghanistan-Pakistan issues largely appear to reflect his thoughts as Head of the US Central Command, during its deployment in Afghanistan. This view is at variance with the thinking in the Pentagon after his departure, which also envisages possible use of air-power in Afghanistan.

This whole charade of treating the Taliban as apostles of virtue and truth stood exposed when it was revealed that one of the Taliban’s “moderate,” leaders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, visited a Taliban training camp during his recent visit to Pakistan.

Austin, meanwhile, proclaimed: “I will focus on our shared interests which include training future Pakistan military leaders through the use of International Military Education and Training funds. Pakistan will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan.”

The White House set these views of Austin aside, with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan noting: “The US will support a regional diplomatic effort, which will aim to help the two sides achieve a durable and just political settlement and a permanent ceasefire.”

And in a further rebuke to the Taliban and its patrons in Rawalpindi, the NSA also discussed US support for steps to protect women and minority groups rights as part of the peace process.

This has naturally been welcomed by the Ghani Government, which together with the Trump Administration’s Envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, were led up the garden path by the Taliban and the Pakistan Army.

For good measure, White House Spokesman Jen Psaki asserted: “President Biden, who, of course has visited India several times, respects and values the long, bipartisan, successful relationship between leaders of the US and India. He looks forward to the continuation of that.”

There will be continuing problems between India and the US on India’s arms purchases from Russia. Egged on by the Chinese leadership to end its “special relationship” with India, President Putin and, more importantly, his loquacious Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chose to make unwarranted and gratuitous comments about India’s relations with the US.

New Delhi’s response was sharp and the matter ended, with an explanatory response by Lavrov. But problems arising from India acquiring Russian S 400 ground-to-air missile, which can monitor and bring down American missiles, is seen as a threat. American legislation also forbids an arms relationship with any recipient of Russian arms.

India would have to make it clear to the US that the S-400 missile systems deal is non-negotiable and we reserve the right to make purchases of our choice from Russia.

In any case, our submarines, warships, fighter aircraft, rockets, tanks and artillery, have Russian inputs. France and Israel have also been major suppliers of weapons systems to India.

The Russians, French and Israelis have been reliable partners on issues of national security for decades now. There can be no question of India compromising its strategic autonomy by yielding to foreign pressures on issues vital to its national security.

Border tensions

There are many reasons to believe that an increasingly power-hungry China is determined to keep the security situation on its borders with India tense. China faced a totally unexpected and strong resistance when it intruded across the Line of Control in Ladakh.

One is confident that India will remain firm on its stand in Ladakh, holding that any withdrawal in parts of Ladakh, will require a return to the position held by both sides on April 1, 2020. We should be under no illusions. China will continue on its policy of periodic “Salami Slicing” of Indian territory, whether in Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh or Sikkim. We have only ourselves to blame with shoddy negotiating in the past, which has led us into this impasse.

The Quad should act in the coming months with the members of Asean to draw up plans on measures to be taken jointly to deal with China’s violations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. China has arbitrarily violated the maritime boundaries of virtually all its neighbours, including Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

The US can always help Taiwan strengthen its maritime security by strengthening its maritime and air defences. India, in turn, can and should better utilise the strengths of Taiwan’s electronics industry for investment in a range of electronics products, which will strengthen and expand its own electronics industry. This move is long overdue.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on January 25, 2021

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