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OP-ED: A pragmatic reset

  • Published at 01:28 am January 26th, 2021
Joe Biden
President Joe Biden signs executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington REUTERS

What will President Joe Biden’s strategy be for South Asia?

Hours after President Joe Biden took oath in Washington DC, the leaders of South Asia showered tribute to the new leadership of the United States.

Months before the formal swearing in on January 20, there were frantic exchanges of diplomatic cables from the capitals of South Asian countries to the United States capital, eager to know the 46th US president’s strategy for South Asia.

Most South Asian think-tanks were of the opinion that the policy would be different from the outgoing president, Donald Trump. The regional leaders and think-tanks have mixed feelings on Trump’s policy on South Asia, which was dubbed as “out of focus.” Most of the think-tanks on South Asian affairs were confident that Biden’s foreign policy would be far more pro-active and pragmatic.

The new US president is likely to engineer a full-scale foreign policy plan to augment cooperation with the 8-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), 11-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), 55 member states of the African Union, 21-member state Organization of American States (OAS), 22-member Arab League, 6-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and so on and so forth.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director for the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC, believes that Biden will fully back a rapidly growing US–India partnership that enjoyed much forward movement during the Trump years -- just as it had throughout every previous administration back to the Bill Clinton era.

Incidentally, Biden is a long-time friend of India’s, who once described the US–India partnership as the defining relationship of the 21st century.

On the other hand, thousands of bipartisan Indian expats in America, who are effectively influential in American politics and administration, were able to churn hard facts into a pro-active foreign policy towards India in South Asia.

The two countries have a shared concern over combating terrorism and the challenges that the emerging Chinese hegemony pose -- these will have Biden’s full-throated support. He will also increase pressure on Pakistan to shut down the India-focused terror networks on its soil, especially with the receding US footprint in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Washington’s delicate relationship with Pakistan won’t be upended by abrupt moves, such as a sudden decision to cut security aid. Like Trump, however, Biden strongly supports total withdrawal from Afghanistan.

However, when he was vice president of Barack Obama’s administration, he was a vocal opponent of his policy regarding additional troop deployment to battle the Taliban and the remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

He is expected to toe the line of Trump for a workable relationship with Pakistan that revolves around securing Islamabad’s diplomatic support in advancing a fragile peace process in Afghanistan with the jihadist Talibans.

Meanwhile, the rest of South Asia will receive strategic focus, as it did during Trump’s era. The attention will be largely framed through the lens of the US-China rivalry and, increasingly, the India–China rivalry amid Beijing’s deepening footprint across the region, fuelled by its controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), says Kugelman at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre.

Washington’s radar will once again lay emphasis on democracy and human rights issues in South Asian states, an emphasis which was often overlooked by the previous administration.

Biden is likely to go relatively easy on India for strategic reasons, but Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka could find themselves subjected to sharp and frequent criticism.

Fortunately, climate change is another priority for Biden, which is a major threat to South Asia, especially Bangladesh, Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka, and this offers an opportunity for less tense US engagement in the region.

In short, the South Asian policy under President Joe Biden will be a rare case of a continuity program. It will definitely have an impact upon the incoming administration and will reset the US foreign policy, presenting both new opportunities and fresh challenges for the region.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.

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