By Yashwant Raj
US President-elect Joe Biden has a China plan and India has a role in it. Though it may look as if it begins by making Chinese president Xi Jinping sweat for his return call — Xi sent Biden a congratulatory message but they haven’t spoken — there is a lot more to it.
Biden has not spoken about his China policy in a full-fledged foreign policy address yet, but he did lift the veil somewhat in an interview to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, addressing a whole range of top-of-the-mind foreign policy issues.
Indians anxious about Biden need not worry. Biden’s China plan is far more strategic than his predecessor’s approach that went from criticising China to coddling of Xi —Donald Trump made his young granddaughter sing for the visiting leader — to a full-fledged trade war to a trade pact to daily China-bashing in the wake of the pandemic that ultimately consumed Trump’s presidency.
From Biden’s comments to NYT, there are key takeaways.
One, Biden will not do anything immediately to undo the 25% tariff on imports from China, imposed by Trump. Two, Biden intends to carry out a full review of the relationship and develop a strategy in consultation with allies in Asia and Europe. “The best China strategy, I think, is one which gets every one of our — or at least what used to be our — allies on the same page,” he said in the interview. “It’s going to be a major priority for me in the opening weeks of my presidency to try to get us back on the same page with our allies.”
Three, Biden will seek to shift the focus of trade policy from Trump’s deficit reduction to “actually produce progress on China’s abusive practices” of forced transfer of technology, theft of intellectual property, and bolstering Chinese corporations with subsidies. Four, he aims to bulk up the US’s capacity to fight by investing in research, infrastructure and education. “I want to make sure we’re going to fight like hell by investing in America first.”
The underlying approach in Biden’s remarks was consistent with what his aides were saying even before his victory. Biden would be “investing in ourselves, renewing our democracy, working with our close partners like India, asserting our value and engaging China from a position of strength”, Antony Blinken, the nominee for secretary of state, had said at an outreach to Indian-Americans in August. He had added, it needs to be noted, “India has to be a key partner in that effort”.
The president-elect and Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed the Indo-Pacific region — another term for the threat from China — in their call on November 17, their first after Biden’s victory. But clearly, New Delhi will look for an early and explicit expression of acknowledgment of this commonality of goal and purpose, and with a sense of urgency because of the growing Chinese aggression in the neighborhood.