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'Mood toward China has changed in Washington'

November 25, 2020 10:23 IST
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'There is little appetite in the Democratic foreign policy establishment to pick a fight with India.'

IMAGE: US President-elect Joe Biden waves to reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, November 23, 2020. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

"The US simply has lost nearly all its credibility when it comes to issues of democracy and basic freedoms."

"Frankly, when it comes to democracy and governance, America is now Ground Zero," Milan Vaishnav, Director and Senior Fellow, South Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, tells's Archana Masih.


With the likelihood of Indian-Americans former US surgeon general Vivek Murthy and Stanford professor Arun Majumdar finding a place in President-elect Joe Biden's cabinet, what enhanced role do you see for the community in the affairs of the new administration?

I believe that we will see an unprecedented number of Indian Americans serving in key positions in the Biden administration.

If you look at the corridors of Capitol Hill, the people staffing the transition, those working on the campaign -- there are a significant (and growing) number of people of Indian origin.

I expect a large number will end up in some of the more than 4,000 political appointee positions subject to the President's discretion.

Traditionally, there has been a lot more focus on Indian Americans holding elected office. And that makes sense since they are more visible. But we should not lose sight of the fact that, when it comes to the executive branch, much of the power is actually invisible because it is exercised mostly behind-the-scenes.

What would you say will be the top 3 or 5 areas the Biden Presidency will usher in changes or bring in new thrust when it comes to its relationship with India?

First, I think the Biden administration will seek to embed its diplomacy in regional and multilateral organisations -- groupings that Trump has often spurned.

This should provide American partners with a greater degree of confidence in our desire to work together and minimise the 'policy by presidential whim' we've seen the last four years.

It's not going to erase disagreements but hopefully it will reduce volatility and uncertainty.

Second, I would expect a real push on climate change. The Democratic Party -- including both the progressives and the centrists -- is absolutely seized with this issue.

During the end of the Obama administration, energy and climate became an area of close collaboration between the United States and India. I think this will be back in a big way.

Third, I do not see any signs of backing down from the hawkish stance the US has taken toward China.

Of course, a Biden administration won't pursue its China policy in the same way Trump has. But I think the motivations behind deepening security partnerships with India, members of the Quad, and other nations in the Indo-Pacific region are stronger than ever.

I think the Biden team recognises that the economic pillar of America's Asia strategy has become the weak link.

Frankly, I do not sense much appetite for mega-trade deals or a return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But I do think we will see greater emphasis on economic instruments and much less of an obsessive focus on trade imbalances, specifically bilateral trade deficits.

Can India expect the much awaited and pending trade deal with US that it could not secure during Prime Minister Modi's trip to America and President Trump's visit to India?

I think this will be very much top of mind for Biden's South Asia team. There is a growing realisation that the US-India partnership has proceeded on two tracks and that the security track has done well while the economic track has been a serious drag.

I expect that early on there will be an effort made to correct this imbalance.

In concrete terms, the United States might restore unilateral trade preferences India has enjoyed under the GSP programme in exchange for concessions on market access.

I think the outlines of the deal are already there. The trouble is, even if this mini-deal comes to pass, it is frankly a pretty modest move.

With India doubling down on protectionism and America hurting economically at home, I am not expecting any major moves on the economic side, at least as far as government-to-government agreements are concerned.

The Trump administration was very forthcoming and supportive of India in the seven-month stand-off with China on the LAC .
Do you think Biden will continue with the same approach keeping in mind the enhanced defence cooperation between our two countries?

I think there will be a lot of continuity on this front. People in India should not underestimate the extent to which the mood toward China has really changed in Washington in the past few years. And it has markedly worsened since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What has outraged many American policymakers -- across parties -- is the way China has tried to press its advantage along the LAC.

IMAGE: US President-elect Joe Biden listens as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks to reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, November 19, 2020. Photograph: Tom Brenner/Reuters

Biden's campaign policy paper had expressed 'disappointment' about the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. What attitude is this Democratic Administration likely to have towards these issues and also on Kashmir?

As my colleague Ashley J Tellis has put it, many of America's closest partners enjoyed a 'values holiday' during the Trump years because the outgoing administration chose not to place democratic freedoms, civil liberties, and human rights front and center in its diplomatic engagement. It simply was not a priority.

I think a Biden administration will invest much more in these issues -- but there are two important caveats.

First, there is little appetite in the Democratic foreign policy establishment to pick a fight with India. Quite simply, there are bigger fish to fry.

Yes, there will be greater scrutiny applied to domestic developments within countries, but I am not convinced this will impact America's overall posture to India.

I think the change will largely be in the realm of rhetoric and that too, probably delivered via private conversations.

Second and perhaps more importantly, the US simply has lost nearly all its credibility when it comes to issues of democracy and basic freedoms.

We watched how an outgoing president who lost -- and lost convincingly -- refused to accept his defeat at the polls. We are witnessing a Republican party that has enabled the worst behaviour of a demagogue.

Frankly, when it comes to democracy and governance, America is now Ground Zero.

What impact and influence is Kamala Harris likely to have on strengthening India-US ties?

I am not sure she will have an impact on the shaping of policy per se, but one cannot deny the powerful symbolism of a woman of partial Indian heritage in the White House.

Like it or not, this is going to be an aspect of the Biden's outreach to India. And, frankly, I think India will also use Harris's heritage as a way of establishing a connect with the new team.

Personally, I think the loose talk about Harris being bad for India because she once utterly a mildly critical sentence about Kashmir policy is just that -- loose talk.

I think it has very little bearing on anything the new administration will do.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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