USA’s diplomatic docket has been pretty full over the past couple of weeks as the Biden Administration’s foreign policy officials made their first overseas trips to allied countries and simultaneously engaged with adversaries. On 15 March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin met officials in Japan; on 17 March, they met their counterparts in South Korea.
On 18-19 March, Mr Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan travelled to Alaska for talks with the Chinese while Mr Austin went in the other direction, spending a couple of days in India meeting the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, External Affairs Minister and NSA. All of this is to say the initial signs are that India is one of the two countries (Japan being the other) that has emerged in pole position in Washington’s plans. In this context, the strong US-backing of India’s position on its boundary dispute with China and the recent ceasefire announced between India and Pakistan are both significant. While Washington does not have a direct role in either situation, the imprimatur of the USA as friend and backchannel facilitator, is all over the recent diplomatic moves in the Sino-Indian and Indo-Pak theatres.
On China, the Biden Administration has cast itself as the only power capable – and now willing – to take on Beijing’s alleged bullying in the region and its attempt to overturn the rules-based global order. The just-concluded and rather combustible US-China talks in Anchorage provided more evidence of Washington’s hardening stand.
The American strategic emphasis on bolstering the heft of ‘natural ally’ India in the Indo-Pacific in particular and as an Asian power in general as well as promoting Japan to flank China is showing. India, apart from being accorded a key role in the Quad, has been publicly backed by the USA on measures it has taken in response to Chinese intrusions. Crucially, despite pressure on President Biden from ideological opponents of India’s ruling dispensation in the USA, he has, at least till now, stood fast in backing India against China.
A word here to commend South Block for showing pretty adroit footwork in utilising US backing to de-escalate the border row with China while keeping the pressure on Beijing through other means would not be amiss. On the India-Pakistan front, the perceived softening of stands on either side with the announcement of the ceasefire and the possibility of bilateral talks in the not-too-distant future is an outcome devoutly wished for by Washington. The reason can be elucidated in one word: Afghanistan.
President Biden has a big decision to make come May on whether he will honour the Doha deal and pull out the last 3,000 US troops from that country or retain some presence on the ground. Whatever he decides, Mr Biden wants Islamabad entirely focussed on its western border to prevent a Taliban-hosted revival of Al-Qaeda and other terror groups on Afghan soil that prioritise US/Western targets. It is not insignificant that despite Pakistan’s protests, the USA has made place for India at the regional high table on the Afghanistan issue. Interesting times.