The View from New Delhi: Trump vs. Biden

Introduction

In the run-up to the US elections, presumptive Democrat candidate Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump has been steadily rising, and is well over 10%, according to various polls. There are four months to the election, however, and it is too early predict the outcome. Many believe that the mercurial Trump is likely to have an ace up his sleeve, and that his popularity within his core constituency is very much intact. Interestingly, one area where Trump has a lead over Biden is confidence with regard to handling the US economy. Trump also scores over Biden in terms of enthusiasm. The current President is lagging behind Biden in terms of important issues like law enforcement and criminal justice issues, foreign policy, the coronavirus outbreak, race relations, and keeping the country united.

Commentators, strategic analysts, and policymakers the world over are keeping a close watch on the US election. The question on everybody’s mind is whether Biden’s foreign policy will be similar to earlier Democrat Presidents like Clinton and Obama, or distinct given the massive economic and geopolitical changes which have taken place globally. According to Trump’s former National Security Advisor, John Bolton – whose memoirs The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir have stirred up controversy and come at the wrong time for Trump – a Biden Presidency would essentially mean ‘another four years’ of Obama’s foreign policy.

It is true that Biden has been part of what is dubbed as the ‘Beltway.’ and would be preferred by US liberals and the class of ‘East Coast Intellectuals’ who are dominant not just in academic circles, but the policy circuit as well, given the fact that he may not be as isolationist as Trump, and is likely to be less abrasive vis-à-vis US allies.

In the changed economic and geopolitical environment, globally, the former Vice President will need to tweak his approach on complex economic and geopolitical issues. We may thus witness a significant departure from the policies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for example, as attitudes towards trade had already begun to change during the Obama presidency.

One strong reiteration of the above point is Biden’s stand on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was former President Barack Obama’s brainchild, and an important component of what had been dubbed the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, which sought to contain China’s growing role in the Asia-Pacific region. (The Trump Administration has sought to build strategic partnerships in Asia through the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ narrative.) Biden said that he would only join a ‘re-negotiated TPP’ (one of the first steps which Donald Trump had taken when elected to office was to pull the US out of the TPP).

On China, too, Biden is likely to be more hawkish than Obama, though maybe he is less predictable and abrasive than Trump. Biden has already referred to some anecdotes in Bolton’s memoirs, where the Former NSA highlights the point that Trump, in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka, lent support to draconian measures against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang

Interestingly, in spite of Trump’s tough stance against China on economic issues, such as the imposition of trade tariffs as well as sanctions against Huawei (only recently, Chinese telecom vendors Huawei and ZTE Corporation were declared ‘national security’ threats), a number of Chinese commentators seem to prefer Trump, mostly because he has a simplistic approach, with US business interests being his primary concern. The US President has also not been very vocal on Human Rights Issues. Apart from this, Trump has given mixed signals vis-à-vis US allies. On the one hand, the Administration has spoken about the US working closely with its allies to take on China, and on the other hand Trump has taken measures which have riled allies. A recent instance being the Trump Administration’s announcement of withdrawing US troops stationed in Germany.

Similarly, Trump’s call for reforming the G7 and including Russia was not taken too kindly by countries like Germany and Canada, who believe that an expanded G7 should consist of democracies.

Trump’s rapport with authoritarian leaders

While Trump’s lack of gravitas in foreign policy has had an adverse impact on relations with US allies, he has got along well with authoritarian rulers like Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and even praised them. Trump has not just turned a blind eye to human rights violations in Xinjiang, but looked the other way when it came to the brutal killing of Egyptian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 (the CIA concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, with whom Trump shares a close rapport, was involved in the killing of Khashoggi).

In the midst of the pandemic, and India’s escalating tensions with China, the US President also suspended non-immigrant work visas, including H1Bs (in recent years, Indians have received well over two-thirds of the total H1B visas which have been issued) until the end of the year. Biden, on the other hand, has been an ardent advocate for closer economic ties with India. The former Vice President had also backed the Indo-US Nuclear deal in 2008 (Biden was then a Senator), and during his visit to India in 2013 he also spoke in favour of a greater role for India in Asia, and the need for both countries to work closely towards this goal.

What has irked many in India, however, is Biden’s criticism of the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), NRC (National Register of Citizens), and his support for the restoration of liberties in Kashmir on Biden’s campaign website. It would be important to note that not just Democrats, but even many Republicans, have criticised the increasing religious polarization in India in recent years, and a US government report also underscored the need for religious pluralism in India, highlighting cases of discrimination against minorities. Many right-thinking Indians, too, have been emphasizing on the point that India can not progress without social cohesion and warned against the perils of religious polarization and social divisions.

Conclusion

No US administration can afford to be soft on China any longer, and neither can India with its rising clout be ignored. The US under Biden is likely to cement ties with countries like India and Vietnam while ensuring that allies like Germany, France, and Australia are kept in good humor. What could change is the simplistic approach of Trump, where even links with allies are driven by short term economic gains. It is important to realize that US-India relations are driven by mutual interests, not just individual chemistry between leaders.

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