Analysis | Delhi opts to wait, watch U.S. foreign policy shift


President Biden’s speech last week focussed on threats from China, Russia but made no mention of India, Afghanistan or Indo-Pacific

U.S. President Joseph Biden’s 20-minute speech at the State Department last week contained many themes for the new administration’s foreign policy agenda, including a return to traditional alliances, a push back to what he called “advancing authoritarianism” and a harsh spotlight on Russia and China on the issues of human rights violations and other challenges they pose the United States. But he left some of those in New Delhi watching the speech closely, guessing about the future of U.S.-India ties and Washington’s engagement with the region.

“It is noteworthy that Mr. Biden did not refer to India, Indo-Pacific, South China Sea or the Quad in his speech to American diplomats,” said former Ambassador Vishnu Prakash, also making the point that the U.S. President had dealt with China while giving primacy to “economic, IPR and human right aspects, instead of the security concerns resulting from the aggressive Chinese posture.”

In his speech, President Biden made five references to China, which he called the U.S.’s “most serious competitor”, and eight references to Russia, which he referred to as a threat that is “determined to damage democracy” in the U.S. He said Washington would engage both countries if it served U.S. national interests.

“India and South Asia are not a priority for the Biden administration, given the need to address stark domestic challenges and the urgent requirement, to first, reassure United States’ allies in Europe and northeast Asia… India’s time will come, and soon,”,” said Rudra Chaudhuri, Director of Carnegie India, when asked about why Mr. Biden made no reference to the region, not even to Afghanistan where a decision on U.S. troops pull-out in May 2021 is pending, and the U.S.-Taliban agreement is in danger of unravelling.

Experts also pointed out that Mr. Biden’s lack of reference to India, and the fact that he has not so far called Prime Minister Narendra Modi since taking office, has been more than made up by calls last week from his Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to their Indian counterparts, where each of them stated very firmly the U.S.’s commitment to its partnership with India and India’s importance in the Indo-Pacific.

An official said all the conversations so far at various levels — had been “extremely positive” and substantial, adding that Mr. Biden’s speech had addressed an American audience, not an international one, and did not reflect on ties with India.

The other guessing game in Delhi is over whether the Biden administration will slap sanctions on India when it takes delivery of the Russian S-400 missile system, under its Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). This week, U.S. Charge d’Affaires Don Heflin said there was no waiver for India from the sanctions at present, but the U.S. “urge(s) all our partners and allies to forego transactions with Russia that risk triggering sanctions under the CAATSA passed by our Congress.”

Speaking at an event organised by the India-America Friendship Association (IAFA) in Delhi, BJP leader Ram Madhav said the U.S. would “weigh the decision a lot before imposing sanctions on India because at least in the Indo-Pacific future, U.S. definitely needs India on its side.” However, clarity on the issue is only likely to come after India accepts delivery of the missile system.

For the moment, New Delhi appears to be playing down any concerns over U.S. foreign policy agenda, with officials prepared to “wait and watch”, and not ruffle any feathers while the Biden administration deals with other preoccupations first.

The Ministry of External Affairs’ mild reaction, where it simply “took note of the U.S. government’s official statement on farmer’s protests backing peaceful protests and criticising Internet bans, for example, came in sharp contrast to the MEA’s page-long sharp reaction to celebrities who took up the cause on Twitter.

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