US President Biden’s South Asia Foreign Policy Minefield
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Issue Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group | Date : 25 Jan , 2021

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South Asia in 2021 has emerged as a geopolitical minefield where the strategic landscape has twisted on its head reducing United States to be challenged by China & Pakistan, put together, which till a decade back figured in positive contours in US policy formulations on South Asia.

US President Biden in South Asia will be challenged in his foreign policy calculus as to “Harmonise” India’s growing salience in United States Indo Pacific Security Template with his past personal predilections of “Softness” on Pakistan and his past preferred “China Hedging” strategies.

South Asia in 2021 is no longer the South Asia of 2006 when then Senator Biden with his pro-Pakistan inclinations steered forcefully the Biden-Lugar Bill favouring Pakistan or the South Asia where most US Democratic Party Presidents mistakenly perceived and sought Pakistan-centric strategic convergences with Communist China unmindful of regional power India’s strategic sensitivities.

South Asia in 2021 presents a new strategic reality where past United States geopolitical geometries have twisted on their head and which will force President Biden and more so his key advisors to recognise and grapple with.

South Asia in 2021 now presents truly the geographical reality of the Indian Subcontinent where India is the predominant Power and US Presidents and their foreign policy establishments cannot unlike the past draw strategic equivalences with Pakistan to be used for balance of power policies to keep India under US pressure.

South Asia in 2021 today witnesses a major explosive flashpoint on India’s Himalayan Borders with China Occupied Tibet where China is provocatively engaged in expansionist border grabbings in furtherance of China-Pakistan Axis convergent strategic aims, which are not only India-centric but impinge also on vital United States national security interests in Greater South West Asia.

South Asia in 2021 in a highly strategic irony for the United States presents President Biden with prevailing strategic reality that India and United States are bound together in a substantial US-India Strategic Partnership during outgoing US President Trump’s term, and which in unspoken terms is certainly China Threat-centric.

In 2021, Pakistan—the other cynosure of past Democratic Administrations in United States was relegated by outgoing US President Trump for allying with China and to undermine US interests and influence in Afghanistan. President Trump had cut off all aid to Pakistan and stopped access of Pakistan Army officers to US military training institutions.

Pakistan for nearly two decades now has been not of much strategic utility for US national security interests. On the contrary the United States may find Pakistan on the other side of the fence in the evolving Cold War 2.0 between United States and China.

With President Biden likely to be engrossed for the first 100 days on grappling with domestic political issues emerging from a bitter and controversial presidential election the danger that exists is that policy pronouncements and formulations on South Asia would fall in the lap of his key advisors——-US Secretary of State, Defense Secretary and National Security.

All of the above may be old South Asia hands or career diplomats in the past but what is perceptionaly visible from some of their pronouncements at their Senate confirmation hearings is that they still carry their Pakistan-baggage or sending mixed messages on China.

In South Asia, US President Biden has to “navigate” through foreign policy minefields presented basically by China and Pakistan, and these foreign policy minefields are both ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ in nature. Tactically, the challenges may be either Pakistan-centric or China-centric and could be dismissed off as of concern to India more than United States. But in strategic terms the concretising China-Pakistan Axis is very much strategic in nature and would impinge heavily on vital US security interests.

US President Biden most fundamental strategic policy realisation that has to be made is that both China and Pakistan in 2021 stand allied together in adversarial contours to the United States more markedly than ever before.

Unlike past decades, China and Pakistan do not entertain any strategic convergences in South Asia in 2021. On the contrary, China and Pakistan feel concerned and threatened by the progress made in the last four years under President Trump in adding substance, coordination and integration of the vital US-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with global manifestation.

Keeping the above in mind, it needs to be stressed that whatever openings President Biden elects to make towards China and Pakistan, President Biden or his policy advisors can ill-ignore its perceptional fall-out on the US-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

India as an Emerged Power with growing economic, strategic and military strengths is closing its power-differentials with China. India’s strategic and geopolitical weightage in global affairs is being recognised.  India can no longer be perceived as capable of being ‘balanced’ by China, Pakistan or the China-Pakistan Axis.

In terms of US South Asia policy formulations in 2021 no policy spaces exist for US foreign policy planners to adopt and follow policies independent of India’s strategic sensitivities on China and Pakistan—- not even in the Afghanistan context.

It was therefore inopportune for President Biden’s Defence Secretary to make statements on Pakistan which have been ill-received in India. One can excuse him since as a former Commander of US Central Command he would be on close terms with Pakistan Army Generals.

The crucial questions that President Biden has to ask of himself are

  • Can China be expected to shed its clashing strategic trajectories with the United States in the remaining decades of 21st Century?
  • Can China shed its “China Exceptionalism” and “China Strategic Equivalence” ambitions to please United States in 2021 or thereafter?
  • Can Pakistan be weaned away from its concubinage strategic bondage to China, more markedly dependent in 2021?

The answers to the above questions and many more similar related ones are in the negative.

China is a contending Power with the United States and past ‘Risk Aversion’ policy instincts of last Democratic Party President Barak Obama on China’s South China Sea military take-over, has emboldened China towards greater defiance of United States.

Pakistan has moved into the ‘China Strategic Orbit’ and is committed to farther China’s strategic ambitions as evidenced in the CPEC , Gwadur and OBOR projects—-all listed by preceding US Administration as prejudicial to US National Security interests. Well recognised by US political leaders and strategic analysts is that Pakistan constantly “undermined and sabotaged” US interests in Afghanistan even when US designated it as ‘Major Non-NATO Ally”

Concluding, it needs to be emphasised that United States past strategic investments on China and Pakistan are no longer “cashable” or “renewable” to serve United States and President Biden’s strategic interests in South Asia or to keep United States positional continuance as the Global Predominant Superpower intact.

In the uncertain geopolitical churning generated by ‘revisionist’ Communist China –a brutal oppressive undemocratic regime—the United States Democratic Party Administration has no choice but to craft its foreign policies in South Asia and globally on the shoulders of  “Coalition of Democracies”— since Democracy and Human Rights are the watchwords of US democratic Party.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Subhash Kapila

is a graduate of Royal British Army Staff College Camberley and combines a rich & varied professional experience in Indian Army (Brigadier), Cabinet Secretariat and diplomatic/official assignments in USA, UK, Japan, South Korea, and Bhutan.

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