The India-US strategic relationship has matured since an enraged President Bill Clinton slapped sanctions on New Delhi following the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s Pokhran-II nuclear test.
President Joe Biden is a moderate and pragmatist. US foreign policy is anyway largely insulated from a change in presidents.
In the next few weeks, Biden will place a broad coalition of strategic partners at the centre of his new security doctrine. Where does China fit into this doctrine? Biden has a complicated relationship with China. His son Hunter Biden has long had close ties with Chinese companies.
According to a BBC report, “In 2013, Hunter flew aboard Air Force Two with his father, who was then vice-president, on an official visit to Beijing, where the younger Biden met investment banker Jonathan Li. Hunter told the New Yorker magazine that he just met Mr. Li for ‘a cup of coffee’, but 12 days after the trip, a private equity fund, BHR Partners, was approved by the Chinese authorities.
“Mr. Li was chief executive and Hunter was a board member. He would hold a 10 per cent stake. BHR is backed by some of China’s largest state banks and by local governments, according to US media. Hunter Biden’s lawyer said he had joined the board in an unpaid position ‘based on his interest in seeking ways to bring Chinese capital to international markets’. Hunter resigned from the board of BHR in April 2020.”
Will Hunter’s commercial links with China prompt Biden to go soft on Beijing? Almost certainly not. There is rising bipartisan anger in Washington over China’s toxic and deceitful role in the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed over 400,000 Americans.
Democrats and Republicans are united in their resolve to punish Beijing — though trade embargos that former President Donald Trump favoured won’t be the toolkit Biden will employ. His inner circle comprises old Obama hands. They know much has changed geopolitically since Obama left office. China’s economy is set to overtake US GDP in 2028. Beijing poses a far more severe challenge than Moscow did through the Cold War.
During his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken endorsed the Trump administration’s tough policy on China. He said China “poses the most significant challenge to the US of any nation.” Now that he is America’s top diplomat, how will Blinken view China’s continuing aggression at the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh?
The US knows that it cannot counter China effectively in the Indo-Pacific without a strong military and security partnership with India. But Washington remains frustrated with New Delhi’s reluctance for closer engagement with the US-led West due to a reflexive embrace of Nehruvian non-alignment by mandarins in the Ministry of External Affairs.
Biden’s China doctrine will also be guided by Beijing’s harsh clampdown on dissidence in Hong Kong that has enraged lawmakers across the aisle on Capitol Hill. The Trump administration has meanwhile left three foreign policy landmines which Biden will find hard to defuse.
One, revoking a decades-old US policy that barred American diplomats from unfettered access to Taiwan. Two, banning major Chinese companies with links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from operating in the US. Three, delisting Chinese companies which don’t follow US audit rules from the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ.
Significantly, Chinese President Xi Jinping was one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden on his electoral victory. The delayed call to Biden was meant to send a message: Xi’s China regards itself as America’s equal and will not be intimidated by US military manoeuvres in the South China Sea.
This is an important year for Xi. China celebrates the centenary of the founding, in 1921, of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In the escalating geopolitical contest between the US and China, India will play an increasingly pivotal role. It has the military resources in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to deter China’s expansionism. Moreover, India’s 400 million consumers are an attractive prize for US companies that find doing business in China unpredictable.
If the Chinese government can overnight humble Jack Ma’s Alibaba, one of its global champions, US firms operating in China, including Tesla, can take nothing for granted.
For India, the estrangement between Washington and Beijing is a signal to shed its traditional impulse to appear non-aligned. In 2021, New Delhi’s alliances must be based on enlightened national interest, while keeping India’s strategic autonomy intact.
India must, at the same time, shed its historical paranoia of antagonising China. Beijing can’t do much worse than it already has militarily in eastern Ladakh. Nor can its conduct in the United Nations, where it protects Pakistani terrorists at every opportunity, get any more toxic.
The “Wuhan spirit”, following the Modi-Xi informal summit in 2017, was a chimera, an act of deception by China, even as it was planning military aggression across the LAC. It is deeply ironical that the Covid-19 virus that has killed over two million people worldwide originated in Wuhan. It is a taint that will forever mark China.
Minhaz Merchant is an author and publisher.
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