Tuesday March 21, 2023

A guessing game

December 01, 2020

Certainly, being the president of a superpower means the world closely watches his/her nays and nods. Analysts, depending on their geographical location, are busy churning out reams of predictions about President-elect Joe Biden and his team.

However, by and large, there is consensus that American interests will override the personality of a president - although there may be some difference in nuances. If the incumbent President Trump has been notorious for his loud-mouth, Biden is considered to be a suave gentleman who conveys his displeasure with a cold cadence. He may perhaps follow Roosevelt’s dictum: “when holding a long stick, keep your voice low”.

Given his past actions and campaign speeches, it is apparent that the Biden administration would prefer multilateral order over the ‘America first’ mantra. He may use diplomacy as a tool for resolution of issues rather than proffering punitive action against adversaries. Biden’s policies towards Afghanistan, India, China and the Middle East would have a direct bearing on Pakistan apart from bilateral relations centering around frozen strategic dialogue, trade, scientific and educational cooperation as well as defense requirements. A brief recapitulation and future projection would be in order.

Biden is familiar with South Asian intricacies. He was deeply involved with Pakistan; steered with Senator Lugar a bill on non-military assistance to Pakistan, and always pressurized our leadership on Afghanistan and nuclear issues. He considered Pakistan a duplicitous partner, which per him was even as an ally hobnobbing with the Taliban.

Biden is likely to focus his attention on Afghanistan, especially when President Trump has announced reducing the troop level to 2500 by the 15th of January, just five days before Biden’s taking of oath as president.

Pakistan will remain the focus of his attention and he will probably be expecting some positive results out of the Taliban and Ashraf Ghani government’s dialogue. He will look towards Pakistan through an Afghan lens and may pressurize Pakistan to “do more” and prevail upon the Taliban to negotiate peace. He will also make human rights, especially women’s rights, a major item on his Afghan agenda.

Biden will also have to decide about the future engagements with Afghanistan, including complete or partial withdrawal of American troops from the country. As per the US-Taliban peace agreement signed in February 2020, the US will withdraw its troops by May 2021. As against Trump’s early withdrawal announcement, Biden would prefer a “responsible withdrawal”, implying completion of intra-Afghan peace process in the country. However, it depends how his administration negotiates the residual withdrawal with the Taliban or bid for the maintenance of American bases with the Taliban or the government that may emerge after the peace dialogue.

For India, his concerns in the past over the human rights violations in Indian Occupied Kashmir have always raised goosebumps in New Delhi. Similarly, issues such as rights of minorities and casteism have always proved to be a red-rag for the Indian officials. The nomination of Tony Sullivan as secretary of state may further reinforce the Biden administration’s human rights agenda. He was equally critical of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizenship (NRC), which is considered anti-minorities especially anti-Muslim. However, this is not to suggest that human rights will dominate the US-India strategic partnership, which came to fruition under Biden’s supervision during the Obama administration.

Secondly, India being a part of the Indo-Pacific alliance and a member of Quad (US, India, Japan and Australia), which came into being during Trump’s presidency, will be another important facet of the Biden administration’s policy towards China and its aftermath. How Biden balances US’ global ambitions and its competition with China by using India as a regional proxy will be keenly watched. Similarly, the China-India military standoff at Ladakh region will be a test for the Indo-US strategic partnership. Biden may continue to court India, and may prop up the latter if his deals with China fail to accrue the desired results, including on trade, human rights, environment, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The situation in the Middle East has become explosive during the past four years of the Trump presidency. The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposition of strict sanctions against Iran followed by the Abraham Accords between Israel, UAE and Bahrain have all accentuated tensions in the region. How Biden maintains a balance between his election promise of rejoining the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and also keeping Israel and Saudi Arabia in good humour will test his diplomatese. The unease in the Saudi camp and in Israel is palpable. Pakistan will have to tread carefully in the face of mounting pressure to recognize Israel, and to maintain a balance between Iran and Saudi-led coalition.

As regards China, Biden may tone down his rhetoric for the simple reason that American jobs and intellectual property rights can be secured if the US engages China in a cooperative manner. Ms Fu Ying, vice foreign minister of China in her latest article in the New York Times of 24th November has suggested “cooperative competition” (cooperation + competition) with the US. While hinting at discussing coronavirus, environment and intellectual property rights issues with the US, she made it clear that “China does not want to replace US dominance in the world. Nor does China need to worry about the US changing China’s system”. Exchange of positive messaging on both sides may improve the atmospherics.

While a US-China détente may take some time, it may augur well for CPEC. If handled deftly, it may create a win-win situation through greater economic integration as the success of CPEC would mean more jobs and better prospects for businesses, including those set up by the US in China. US mediation between China and India can also open up new avenues for CPEC and the Belt and Road Initiative. But for that to happen, one would expect triumph of statesmanship over brinkmanship.

The writer is a former ambassador.