India’s announcement of the withdrawal of its forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) after months of tensions with Chinese forces and its agreement of a de facto ceasefire along its Line of Control (LOC) with Pakistan, raised suspicions among its critics. These recent developments make it evident that India is trying to adapt with the Biden Administration’s policy. India has been the most important strategic partner of the US since post 9/11 but Biden Administration does not seem to be leveraging India as the previous Administration did. Right after taking office, President Joe Biden reversed a few decisions taken by his predecessor like rejoining the Paris Climate accord, re-engaging with the WHO, halting construction of the Mexico wall, reviewing Afghan Peace Deal etc. At present, Biden administration is reviewing its China policy which rang alarm bells for its largest strategic partner India. Biden’s renewed China policy implies that the US will compete China in the areas of technology, military, and cyberspace etc. Nonetheless, China’s increasing critical role in the world economy has created economic reliance for other countries that is impermeable to change therefore, the QUAD alliance might not be able to counterbalance China’s influence. To make matters worse, Biden administration threatened to sanction India under its CAATSA law, if it proceeds with its plan of purchasing Russian S-400 which demonstrates that the US can throw its largest strategic partner under the bus it doesn’t meet its interests.
Moreover, the recent QUAD meeting has been seen by the experts as a weaker attempt to unify key players in the region as compared to Trans Pacific Partnership, yet it failed due to the exclusion of civil society. It is yet to be seen how the things will unfold for India under Biden Administration but one thing is evident that Modi’s nationalism might challenge this alliance as US raised concerns over human rights violations by Modi’s government as well as amendment of Article 370 and Citizenship Amendment Bill, ahead of US Defense Secretary’s visit to India.
In rapidly transforming international political environment, US has put India’s role at back burners. At least for now, India lacks the vigorous support of new United States administration for China’s containment through conventional military policies. In response to this, India came to know that it had to reach an agreement with its neighbors, as it cannot depend on US support in case the country’s strategy of regional aggression sparked another security crisis, such as, with Pakistan in February 2018 and the recent Galwan crisis with China.
Even during these crises, the previous hardliner Trump Administration was not aberrantly realistic and did not give full support to India. On the contrary, given how soft the Biden administration’s approach has signaled, New Delhi will know it would certainly not be able to rely on Washington or other alliances if tensions with Beijing and / or Islamabad suddenly escalate over India’s destabilizing plans and postures against them.
This does not mean that India has renounced its previous regional policy, but is only moderating for the time being and India struggles to find its place in new US administration’s regional strategy for Asia in general and for Great Power Competition in particular. The commitment to democracy and issues of human rights are the two areas where the Biden administration has made a major case for its commitment and India has been under augmented criticism in recent years but largely ignored by the former Trump administration giving the realpolitik reasons of containing China’s rise. However, Biden administration will not remain silent about them unless it takes something like Trump, as these issues are very important to Democrats in US politics. They might have even planned to commission them in the near future to force India to soften its regional strategy of aggression if India had not yet done so remarkably with the recent positive steps around the northern and western LAC and LOC for maintaining regional harmony. Since the new US administration got something in return, they can stay calm for now.
Moreover, given India’s domestic pressure to take these steps due to changing regional strategic calculations of US which are not in India’s control, it can be assumed that decision-makers in New Delhi may be somewhat unhappy with Washington because they were not expecting to be forced in making moves against PM Narendra Modi’s previously publicly stated stand points, especially by opting for a so-called “hard line” towards China and Pakistan without ever compromising on it. This notion, if accurate, means that India can sit along and pass its time waiting for what it may mistakenly consider to be the perfect opportunity to reaffirm its policy of regional aggression. In other words, at the moment it is only keeping pace with the geostrategic flow and new US administration, but it is not really interested in the sustainability of stability in any of the two LOC and LAC. At the same time, however, India is aware of the fact that it cannot depend on its recently renewed relationship with Russia to replace the US military support it lost after Trump left the White House.
The Russia-India strategic partnership is one of the most important pillars in the whole of Eurasia, but Moscow will not likely consider allying with India against China, as Washington, in the worst-case scenario, would have done under Trump administration. In addition, some international relations experts had previously complained about Russia’s unreliability as an arms partner for India, which they said had forced them to look for American options. Although Russia is indeed trying to “balance” China with India, it is doing so in a “friendly” way as much as possible to prevent the unintentional provocation of a security dilemma between them. For the above-mentioned reasons, India believes it has no choice but to reverse the rapid deterioration of its relations with the two neighbors, China and Pakistan, at least for the time being. The ‘post-trump’ international order and strategic calculations of US are just too detrimental to continue with its regional policy of aggression, but that might change again in the future.
This article was published in the Global Affaires International Magazine on April 5, 2021.