Biden&’s time in India would be well spent if both sides exchange visions about the kind of Asia Pacific and Middle East that New Delhi and Washington would prefer to see by the year 2020 and how the two could coordinate to shape such horizons ~ Sreeram Chaulia
The visit by the US Vice-President, Mr Joe Biden, to India is a rare moment in diplomatic history. Not since George HW Bush in 1984, when he was Vice-President under Ronald Reagan, has India hosted a holder of this key but underplayed office in the American political system. Biden is no rubber-stamp in the Barack Obama administration. His folksy mannerisms and avuncular style belie an astute political mind that has been deployed by Obama to douse domestic fires and to assay critical shifts in American foreign policy.
Biden was the main voice in the American establishment calling for an early withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan, acting as a contrapuntal to the hawks in the Pentagon and the US military who wanted indefinite war. Likewise, it is Biden who is now helping define the contours of America&’s historic ‘rebalancing’ or ‘pivot’ to the Asia Pacific.
On the eve of his departure for India, Biden delivered the clearest yet policy speech on the US engagements in Asia and India&’s role within that framework. The takeaway from Biden&’s address at George Washington University is that the US now acknowledges India as a crucial actor in the Asia Pacific region. While we in India often parochially box ourselves as a South Asian power only, Washington is egging us on to not only “Look East” but also “Act East” (as former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it).
Biden has elliptically warned China from bullying smaller East Asian neighbours with the pithy formulation: “no intimidation, no coercion, no aggression.” The unstated assumption here is that India, which is not quite an ally of the US like Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Philippines and Australia, will also play a part in ensuring a balance of power in the Asia Pacific.
Joint declarations and communiques between India and the US often stress freedom of navigation in maritime waters and peaceful resolution of littoral disputes in accordance with international law. The unnamed target of such missives is China, which last year surrounded Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines and has since restricted access to it. Chinese naval barriers to the entrance of this small speck of land in resource-rich waters ring alarm bells for the entire region. India&’s own oil exploration interests and partnerships with Vietnam will be increasingly embroiled in China&’s attempts to monopolise the entire western expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
Yet, and here is the catch, while America and most East Asian nations are inclined to lay out the red carpet to the Indian navy and Indian commercial interests in the Asia Pacific, the reality of India&’s energy dependence on the Middle East is undeniable.
Biden has remarked with pride that the USA&’s imports of oil have reached the lowest levels in decades, thanks to the new boom in homegrown shale gas. Neither India nor China has this luxury of assured domestic supply of energy. Both will, therefore, continue to need to invest diplomatically and politically in the Middle East, even as the US can gradually cut loose from that conflicted region.
Biden exudes wishful thinking that, as a “big power”, America&’s re-balancing to the Asia Pacific will not cause neglect of the Middle East and Europe. But scarcity of resources and the deficit-trimming pressures on a sick American economy mean that the era of America as a global hegemon is gone.
The Middle East, which has obsessed US policymakers since World War II and the creation of Israel, is a theatre that today matters less to Washington and more to New Delhi and Beijing. National security demands that India also ‘Look West’ and ‘Act West’ in a manner proportionate to the fact that 70 per cent of our oil comes from Iran and Arab nations, and that Israel is our third largest supplier of weapons. The reticence in India to enter the maelstrom of peace processes to contain fires in the Middle East has so far sufficed, as there has been no oil shock since 1991, when the ripples from the Gulf War had devastated our economy.
But as America progressively loses influence in this region and vacillates about plunging fully into its worst crisis spot ~ Syria ~ prospects of chaos there will impact tremendously on India and China. The Obama administration should note this vulnerability of India vis-à-vis the Middle East and progressively confer with and involve India in key multilateral institutions meant to manage this fraught area.
American desire for integrating India into the Asia Pacific is incomplete without making India a pillar of stabilisation in West Asia, as our government refers to the Middle East to avoid old colonial nomenclature. India&’s stature as a non-aligned power that has goodwill with Iran as well as its arch enemies is worth harnessing by Washington to extricate itself from a pointless cold war with Tehran.
New Delhi and Washington need breakthroughs in geo-strategic terms which lead to a broad re-calibration of India&’s role in the world and how that would fit into or sometimes contradict America&’s reorienting ways.
Backslapping and flesh-pressing Biden has innate abilities to transcend narrow bilateral prisms. He could be the vector for widening the India-US engagement into hitherto unexplored terrain.
Biden&’s trip is the second in what is a diplomatic triple whammy for US-India relations this year. He was preceded in New Delhi by US Secretary of State John Kerry and will be followed in Washington by a summit meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Barack Obama this September. The high-level attention and energies being expended by both nations on boosting ties could go wasted if they do not keep their eyes on the larger picture of how each side features in the other&’s medium and long-term global strategies.
The ad hoc nature of formulating foreign policy in our country and the absence of landmark speeches or doctrines about India&’s changing external scenario and future diplomatic ambitions are to blame for an excess of nitty-gritty talks and a paucity of blueprints that can steer India-US relations for the coming decades.
Plain-speaking Biden&’s time in India would be well spent if both sides exchange visions about the kind of Asia Pacific and Middle East that New Delhi and Washington would prefer to see by the year 2020 and how the two could coordinate to shape such horizons.
The writer is Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs