Biden’s China policy tweaks could bring fresh tensions for India and Russia. In a departure from this template, Trump was unambiguous in identifying Beijing as a threat to US interests and imposing strictures and penalties

by C Uday Bhaskar

When the United States swears in a new president on January 20, there will be sighs of relief at home and abroad, especially after the January 6 storming of Capitol Hill by Donald Trump’s supporters in denial over Joe Biden’s election victory.

One hopes this group makes no further attempt to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power in the world’s oldest and most relevant democracy, though there are disturbing reports of a “Million Militia March” across the US to protest against the swearing-in.

The White House transition is expected to return a much-needed normalcy to US governance and a stability and predictability to American diplomacy after the tumultuous Trump years.

Biden’s team is expected to review ties with China in the first instance, which will affect Russia, India and the relations that link these four nations in an uneven quadrilateral. Whatever President Trump’s transgressions in steering US foreign policy, which often lurched from one extreme position to the other, it is agreed that China was smoked out of the grey zone that characterised the Washington-Beijing relationship post-Cold War.

From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, presidents prioritised the US-China relationship along the economic-trade-investment track with an abiding but understated security-strategic dissonance. The received wisdom was that, as Beijing prospered, it could be brought to the global table and encouraged to conform to the prevailing US-led international order. Yet Obama’s second term saw a Xi Jinping-led China become more assertive, not least in the South China Sea, even as America invoked international law and freedom of the high seas.

In a departure from this template, Trump was unambiguous in identifying Beijing as a threat to US interests and imposing strictures and penalties.

While China has been identified as a security concern since the 1990s, the bilateral relationship deteriorated swiftly during Trump’s term, hitting an all-time low last year as US protocols and agreements pertaining to trade, Tibet and Taiwan were radically recast.

At the start of the year, the State Department said China’s Communist Party “poses the central threat of our times, undermining the stability of the world to serve its own hegemonic ambitions”, adding that 

Last month, Biden indicated the broad contours of his foreign policy in revealing that he discussed with his advisers “the different strategic challenges we will face from both Russia and China, and the reforms we must make to put ourselves in the strongest possible position to meet these challenges”.

He added: “On any issue that matters to the US-China relationship – from pursuing a foreign policy for the middle class, including a trade and economic agenda that protects American workers, our intellectual property, and the environment – to ensuring security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, to championing human rights – we are stronger and more effective when we are flanked by nations that share our vision for the future of our world.”

Biden’s approach is likely to be more multilateral and collective than Trump’s policy of going it alone. Beijing has cautiously welcomed Biden’s assumption of office, with hopes he will end Trump’s cold-war stance and return to a “sensible approach” in bilateral relations.

Ironically, in a post-pandemic world, major powers have little choice but to cooperate, from trade and investment to climate change.

As the only major economy to grow last year, China has moved to negotiate agreements that dilute the space and traction for an anti-China cluster to form. The investment agreement signed with the European Union illustrates Beijing’s adroit diplomacy and will pose a challenge to Biden’s team.

Isolating China would not improve economic recovery for the US and other major economies, while Beijing benefits little from impulsive, “wolf warrior” diplomacy-led trade and technology diktats against other nations. Given their economic and military capabilities, the US and China are the major powers in this decade – the lesser powers simply have to adjust to this strategic reality.

For Russia and India, any discord or dissonance in the US-China relationship affords greater manoeuvrability in their individual engagements with Washington and Beijing. For China, keeping Russia on its side is most desirable in balancing against the US, even as Russia invests in India to form an uneven quadrilateral.

During the Cold War, non-aligned countries such as India were described as the “clever calves that suckle from two cows”, and this ability to engage with competing sides is apparent: India has managed to be part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a security and economic summit led by China and Russia, even as it increases defence cooperation with the Pentagon.

The complex Russia-India relationship dates back to the Cold War, when India was brought into Moscow’s strategic tent while the US and China aligned their interests against Moscow. But New Delhi’s growing proximity with America today has caused its ties with Russia to fray.

Speaking unusually sharply, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently described India as “an object of the Western countries’ persistent, aggressive and devious policy as they are trying to engage it in anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies, the so-called ‘Quad’, while at the same time the West is attempting to undermine our close partnership and privileged relations with India”.

How a Biden-led America tweaks its China policy would have a significant impact on both Russia and India. If the policy lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic have been internalised, all four nations will have to review and recast their foreign policy orientation to recover from the trauma of 2020.