Not even a Biden administration can ignore China’s efforts to pressure US allies, let alone more direct efforts to counter American influence in the region

Whoever wins the presidential race — Donald Trump or Joe Biden — the emerging verdict has made it clear that the US, today, is a deeply divided society, far beyond anyone’s imagination. While this is unlikely to have much immediate impact on the US’ foreign policy, especially towards the Indo-Pacific and China, which are rapidly freezing in place, it could have some impact on the stability in this region if China becomes aggressive in its over-confidence and miscalculates that domestic divisions would prevent the US from responding. But most seriously, in the longer term, a divided America could be a weaker and more inward-looking America, something that might hurt Indian interests.

The last time such deep divisions were visible was during the George W. Bush administration — it impacted both the US’ foreign policy and India, although the ultimate effect was limited because the US, back then, was stronger and could brush off its effects. For example, the internal divisions led to an intense domestic opposition to Iraq and even the Afghan war, and contributed to efforts to delegitimise American power internationally.

For India, though the administration was able to push through the nuclear deal with the US, arguments about American unilateralism undermining the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime became part of the discourse, arguments that echoed the general domestic criticism of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. These were later used by China as part of its reasons for unsuccessfully opposing the nuclear deal and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)’s waiver for India in 2008. But the divisions now may be even deeper, and importantly, the US in 2020 does not have the margin for error because its relative power advantage is far less than what it was.

Can Biden Change A Lot?

The US election results might not bring an immediate or fundamental change in American foreign policy itself, save for stylistic ones. The challenge of an ever more powerful China and its unrelentingly aggressive behaviour in the South Asia region severely restricts the options before the next US president. But if Biden is likely to face little choice but to compete and attempt to contain China, then his administration will approach this task quite differently. A steadier Biden may be better at building coalitions in the Indo-Pacific and provide greater predictability.

On the downside, however, Biden might potentially be more willing to start out with some attempt at a reset with China. He could even be driven by climate change advocates within the Democratic Party’s Left-wing to seek accommodation with China, as Beijing appears to be hoping. This will fail, even in the short-term, because a China that is intent on demonstrating its national strength and which views other countries with an instinctive and deep suspicion is an unlikely partner. Not even a Biden administration will be able to ignore China’s efforts to pressure American allies such as Australia, let alone more direct efforts to counter American influence and role in the region.

The problem, however, is that such an effort at a reset from Washington will further undermine the confidence among American partners in the region. It will heighten fears of abandonment, which is never far below the surface in any case for weaker powers in any international alignment. The consequence will be greater difficulty in building a partnership to contain China. If the anchor of such an alliance seeks accommodation, the weaker partners will likely follow suit.

A greater short-term danger comes not from a changing US foreign policy under Biden, but from an overconfident Beijing that sees the divisions in the US as a license to engage in even more adventurous policies towards its neighbours. It is only natural to see in the seeming chaos of democracies both indiscipline and irresoluteness, instead of the real strength that allows such open displays of political disagreements. Added to this, democracies pursuing accommodation may further reinforce this image of weakness, encouraging autocracies to push more than they should.

Impact On US’ Long-Term Power Capacity

The spectacle in the US also raises some questions about the country’s longer-term power and capacity. While the 2020 election is a demonstration of the deep strength of American democracy and its federal polity, it also appears to have revealed deep divisions within American society. While the supporters of the opposing party might have been disappointed if either Trump or Biden had received a landslide victory or even a reasonably clear-cut one, it would, at least, have meant a society that was united, one way or another. The result, however, suggests anything but. This is why, while the Republican Party will likely continue to be Trump’s party, the US is not ‘Trump’s country’. To say that ‘Trumpism is here to stay’, or worse, that America will be defined by ‘Trump Americans’, is only a part of the truth because it ignores the other half of the country that voted against Trump. Such arguments miss an important implication: the country is cleaved down the middle.

Trump’s electoral performance is quite spectacular, especially considering his complete failure in handling the coronavirus pandemic. This, and the fact that he appears to have not only increased his vote totals but also got more support from African-and Hispanic-Americans, require closer examination than the convenient excuse that half the country is racist. It is possible that his appeal lies in his handling of the economy: in opinion polls, 61 per cent of Americans have said they were better off than three years ago, and he has consistently ranked well above Biden on the question of who can better handle the economy, though this slipped late in the race.

Trump has also generated great enthusiasm among his supporters, suggesting this was not just a cold pocketbook calculation — unlike, for example, the 1992 election when Bill Clinton defeated the incumbent George W. Bush on a campaign whose internal motto was “it’s the economy, stupid”. This suggests a more emotional connection to the candidate, which is possibly reflective of deeper social or identity cleavages.

It is, of course, also possible that these are temporary differences, the normal result of hard-fought election campaigns. Some, like the Conservative columnist Noah Rothman, even see something positive in the divided result because the fringes on both sides will now be forced to become fringy again and leave the field to the centrist deal-makers. But the problem is that this does little to resolve the deep societal divisions and reduces it to a problem of political management. This is not something that the US has not seen before. The electorate was so divided in 2000 that the Bush-Gore election notoriously came down to the ‘hanging chads’ in Florida. Though divisions remained, the country did vote with clear majorities for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

But while it is too early to fully grasp the current American situation, the divisions do appear to be potentially more serious than what American society underwent during the 2000s or even during the Vietnam War.

If this is the case, it bears watching, especially for countries in the Indo-Pacific, including India. These countries need the US to remain strong because it remains the only power capable of effectively balancing China. But societies with deep internal cleavages may not be very good at either generating national power or attending to external conditions. What this means is that if there are indeed deep and abiding social and political divisions within the US, there could be longer term consequences to American power and American willingness to deploy that power abroad that affects all its partners.