Biden’s first security plan shows US desperate for partners. But India must read fine print. The US will be mindful of both its interests and values as it engage with partner nations

It is a measure of the seriousness of our times when a newly sworn in American president sees the need to bring out an Interim National Security Strategy Guidance just a little more than a month and a half in office. In Joe Biden’s case, it is more properly an effort by a rather beleaguered government to unite people across a warring political, social and racial divide, and get a move on leaving differences aside. That might be difficult. There is much there that will displease not just the Republican Party members but some sections of the American people too. There’s much to interest India, which finds mention in the paper. And there are some warning signs too that New Delhi might want to heed.

‘Interim’ Strategy

The rationale for this highly unusual ‘interim’ strategy has been repeated often enough: the US has to reclaim its place in the world, by re-engaging with it. However, the strategy is utilised to explain the need for re-engagement to the American people as “… leading the world isn’t an investment we make to feel good about ourselves. It’s how we ensure the American people are able to live in peace, security, and prosperity. It’s in our undeniable self-interest.” This is aimed at a public that thought Donald Trump’s strategy of walking out of international institutions dominated by China and its friends, and leaving wars to sort themselves out was a good idea.

Biden’s message is that making America great again will put money in pockets back home, which delivers on his promise of a foreign policy that would serve the middle class, not the rich and ruinous group that presumably scored earlier. How this is different from Trump arm-twisting nations into buying American is unclear. With pre-2020 election surveys showing that eight out of ten voters saw an economy in recession as the most serious issue, trade partners were warned. It’s the economy first.

The US And Everyone Else

The other thing is the upfront admission that while security threats abound, the US cannot address these alone. That’s rather a facer for the whole Hollywood industry that shows the US, like Superman, taking on all the baddies single handedly. The Biden administration, again unlike Trump, wants to give prominence to alliances like NATO and the European Union (EU).

The fact that the EU, which has the largest NATO members, specifically refused US pleas to wait to sign up to Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China rather makes the whole point of firming up alliances against – let’s face it, mainly China – something of a puzzling exercise. China overtook the US as the EU’s largest trading partner. According to Eurostat, trade reached $711 billion in 2020 compared to $673 billion for the US. You don’t generally fight with the country that props up your GDP.

But putting out an ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ seems to be the flavour of the month. France sent in warships and a submarine to the South China Sea in a show of strength, while the UK is to send its Carrier Strike group, though with US aircraft and a strong multinational component to the area. The Canadians are already there, passing through the Taiwan Strait to join a US exercise. All this is pretty impressive. But only time will tell whether trade can actually be flipped into war.

The Partners – India And Indo-Pacific

Apart from these ‘core’ alliances, there is a reference to working with partners to protect ‘vital national security interests’ in the Indo-Pacific, and thereafter the reference to a deeper partnership with India – the rider being “we will be mindful of both our values and our interests as we engage partner nations”. That seems to be a nod in the direction of an increasing number of articles pointing at the loss of India’s famed secularism and democratic principles. New restrictions on social media and civil society is not going to go unquestioned, even if Delhi finds such actions hypocritical in a world where a dictatorial China is courted.

On the plus side, there is no doubt at all that the Indo-Pacific is central to the strategy, with plans for ‘right sizing’ military forces elsewhere through a Global Posture Review, but promising a ‘robust’ presence in this region. Don’t forget all of this also requires allies and partners to pull their own weight. No free rides are implicit in the statement “when force is required, we will employ it alongside international and local partners wherever possible to bolster effectiveness and legitimacy, share burdens, and invest others in success”. Delhi needs to consider that when estimating the defence budget next year.

More For Diplomacy, Less For Defence?

Fears that the US could reduce or freeze its defence budget seems to be borne out. The strategy uses usual words like ‘rationalisation’ and ‘diplomacy as the tool of first resort’, which will strike terror into the hearts of the people at the Pentagon. Expect that a follow-up on military strategy from that quarter will make its reservations felt.

As experts point out, the budget has steadily increased since 2017, tailing off only in FY 2021 in allocations for modernisation. The Trump administration provided the needed funds for a force structure aimed at possible conflict, first with China, and then Russia, North Korea and others trailing, thus reversing the order of the Obama administration. Capability was, therefore, defined within the parameters of defeating or deterring aggression by two major powers.

This could now change, in part due to recession, and in part due to a holding back in declaring China a threat to the US ’primacy. That’s revolutionary in itself. After all, US primacy has underwritten ‘American values’ almost in its entirety since the 1940s.

The Threat

That then is the core of the whole issue – the threat. China is identified as the “only competitor…capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system (read US-dominated system)”. Russia comes second, and then the rest. But there is also a commitment to cooperating with China in areas like climate change and the pandemic.

It is a view held by new appointees such as Susan Rice, the national security advisor (NSA) in Obama’s second term, and now domestic affairs coordinator, who advocated “multiple areas’ of convergence” with China. Another is Victoria Nuland, now undersecretary for political affairs who supported the Confucius Institutes as part of ‘people to people’ understanding, despite the propaganda and influence operations that they peddle.

Biden himself has earlier dismissed the China threat as overdone, while surveys indicate that six out of ten Democrats feel the same way, opposing stopping scientific exchanges or limiting Chinese students arriving in the US.

Meanwhile, as Chinese aircraft again tried to intimidate Taiwan, the State Department, while calling for ‘peaceful resolution’, maintained that its commitment to Taiwan is ‘rock solid’. Expect a tough position, but a willingness to dialogue to avert military conflict. Everything from Track 1.0 to a hundred decimals down are likely to open up.

The Interests

India can hardly criticise. After its worst ever encounter with China in recent times, New Delhi has begun to again clear large investment proposals from Beijing. Despite the Ladakh face-off, trade between the two increased, with China beating the US to take the first place as India’s biggest trading partner. It seems there’s no black and white anymore. Anything goes, as long as you can keep your head and become an economic powerhouse, and then shape the narrative in a suitable direction.

For the US, it’s the narrative of ‘democracy’ and rights for all, all framed in a global order set on American parameters. For China, the primary interest is to turn the tables on that. The trouble is that China’s global footprint is growing fast in terms of market access and technology, with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) covering 70 countries comprising one-third of global GDP, not to mention a footprint in 36 ports worldwide, even if in a minority stake.

The paradox of an immovable force and an unstoppable one seems set to be tested, sooner than later. With one party a neighbour just across the mountains, and the other sitting in our oceans, India’s own strategy will only get more complicated.