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Delhi must brace for a measure of unpredictability in America’s external orientation

C. Raja Mohan writes: Unlike Beijing and Moscow, Delhi has no incentive to pick sides between Trump and Biden. It can deal productively with both. But Delhi is conscious of the current unprecedented churn in US domestic politics and the breakdown of the internal consensus on foreign and economic policies.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: August 11, 2020 9:49:40 am
US presidential elections, US elections, Donald trump US elections, joe biden, trump biden, trump china, C Raja Mohan writes, Indian express opinionGiven the global impact of US policies, everyone in the world has a preference in the American presidential race. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

China and Russia tend to agree on most international issues these days. Thanks to the deepening strategic partnership built over the last two decades in opposition to the US’s dominance, Moscow and Beijing have had one of the most stable great power relationships of the 21st century. But Beijing and Moscow seem to disagree on one important issue — the US presidential elections set to take place in the first week of November. While China’s preference seems to be in favour of the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, Joe Biden, Russia would rather have US President Donald Trump retain the White House.

Given the global impact of US policies, everyone in the world has a preference in the American presidential race. With the nominating conventions of the two parties due in the next few days, picking the winner of the US elections is already a parlour game around the world.

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For India too the stakes in the US relationship have dramatically risen amidst the huge downturn in its ties with China. With the Ladakh crisis showing no signs of a quick resolution, what happens between the US and China is of great policy relevance. New strains in the US-Russia relations and a Sino-US rapprochement under Biden will certainly complicate India’s great power relations. For China and Russia, the preferred outcome is more than an academic exercise. Both their bilateral relations with the US are caught in American domestic political turbulence. Unlike most countries that simply learn to live with the outcome, Beijing and Moscow are accused of trying to influence it.

In a statement late last week on foreign interference in the American presidential elections, the US counter-intelligence chief, William Evanina, said that China was trying to undermine Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and Russia was targeting his Democratic rival and former Vice President, Joe Biden. It is no secret that Beijing is outraged by the Trump administration’s massive economic, political and ideological offensive against China in recent months. And Moscow has struggled to overcome the deeply-held conviction among the Democrats that Russian interference was instrumental in Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 elections.

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That brings us to a strange political dynamic in Washington today. Trump has to deny the Democratic Party’s charge that he is a “Russian puppet”. And Biden hs to fend off Republican accusations that he is “China Joe” or a shill for Beijing’s interests. And thereby hangs a tale.

The Democrats have never accepted the verdict of 2016 and have sought to oust Trump using allegations of his Russian connection. The Trump campaign argues that Biden is the very symbol of what it sees as America’s disastrous engagement with China over the last four decades.

While the world is familiar with Trump’s policies, the current global interest is focused on what Biden might do if he wins the White House in November. The prospects of Biden’s victory appear high at the moment. The Democratic Party’s election platform carefully navigates the minefield created by Trump’s full-blown attacks on China. Democrats say they don’t want a “new Cold War” with China, but promise to be tough with Beijing on trade and human rights issues. At the same time, they also underline the importance of sustaining a productive engagement with China on global issues such as climate change. China, then, is right to calculate that a Biden victory might create political room to arrest the current escalation of bilateral tensions with the US and explore accommodation on the full range of contentious issues.

Russia has the opposite problem. Moscow has no reason to be happy with Trump, who has imposed quite a range of new sanctions on Russia; but they know Biden’s win will make it even harder for the much-needed reset in bilateral relations. Democrats accuse Trump of treating Vladimir Putin as a “strategic partner” and “weakening” the Atlantic alliance with Europe. They promise to change that by joining “our European partners in standing up to a revanchist Russia”. The party’s platform does talk about engaging Russians on nuclear arms control, but the colour of its Russia brush is dark.

But, beneath the posturing of Trump and Biden, there are big issues in play. In both parties, there is a serious questioning of the many traditional principles of US foreign policy. On the Republican side, Trump himself has been the principal disruptor. He has trashed America’s long-standing alliances, challenged the conventional wisdom on the virtues of economic globalisation, and underlined the futility of America’s endless wars, especially in the Middle East.

While Democrats are united in their intense hatred for Trump, many of Trump’s themes find resonance among Democrats. While the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment would like to go back to the familiar internationalist activism, progressive factions in the party oppose Washington’s appetite for costly interventionist wars. Radical sections of the Democrats want to cut US defence spending.

Many Democrats oppose free trade agreements that hurt American workers. They want tough labour and environmental standards in trade agreements. While Trump de-emphasised the importance of human rights in the conduct of American foreign policy, Democrats want to put them at the heart of America’s international engagement. It would be reasonable to expect that a diverse range of groups associated with the Democratic Party will be mobilising Washington’s power to bear upon targets around the world.

India has dealt with this American script as part of its expanding engagement with the US over the last three decades. Today, there is bipartisan support from the Republicans and Democrats for a strong partnership with India. There are many strands — economic, political and security — that provide stability to India-US relations.

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Four years ago, there was no dearth of sceptics who insisted that India-US relations would nosedive under Trump. Delhi, however, found ways to elevate the US partnership to higher levels in the Trump years.

This does not mean, India can take a Biden administration for granted. To be sure, Delhi is familiar with Biden, who served as Vice President for eight years under Barack Obama, and many of his potential choices for top policy positions.

Unlike Beijing and Moscow, Delhi has no incentive to pick sides between Trump and Biden. It can deal productively with both. But Delhi is conscious of the current unprecedented churn in US domestic politics and the breakdown of the internal consensus on foreign and economic policies. India should, therefore, be prepared for a measure of unpredictability in America’s external orientation in the coming years.

This article first appeared in the print edition on August 11 under the title “Trump or Biden”. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.

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