Democracy, economy key to India-US ties

Last Updated 29 November 2020, 06:03 IST

The broad contours of what the incoming Joe Biden administration wants to achieve over the next four years is now more or less clear: On the world stage, it wants to return America to its position of leadership. Promoting and strengthening democracy, in America and abroad, is key to doing that. It will focus on multilateralism and a return to multilateral institutions. It has made climate change, and its own return to and the expansion of Paris agreement commitments, the centre piece of the legacy that Biden wants to leave behind. And it will deal with China differently from the Trump administration. Although we do not know exactly what the approach will be (and whether China will play along), it is reasonably certain that it will be less confrontationist militarily. The focus will be on economic ‘coopetition’, rather than decoupling, and an intense rivalry and containment on the technological front – Biden is unlikely to reverse Trump administration policies and actions on 5G or giving access to US semiconductor and other technologies to Chinese entities.

What’s at stake? In an article for War on the Rocks, titled Aftershocks: The Coronavirus Pandemic and the New World Disorder, authors Colin Kahl and Arianna Berengaut, both associated with the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Engagement – Biden’s new brains trust – gave a glimpse of the global situation today compared with what happened during the years between the two World Wars, in the aftermath of the influenza pandemic that hit the world just as the Covid-19 pandemic has in 2020.

“This period…was characterised by rising nationalism and xenophobia, the grinding halt of globalisation in favour of beggar-thy-neighbour policies, and the collapse of the world economy in the Great Depression. Revolution, civil war, and political instability rocked important nations. The world’s reigning liberal hegemon — Great Britain — struggled and other democracies buckled while rising authoritarian states sought to aggressively reshape the international order in accordance with their interests and values. Arms races, imperial competition, and territorial aggression ensued, culminating in World War II — the greatest calamity in modern times.”

They concluded that “After World War I, the United States turned its back on efforts to construct a better international order. However, after World War II, it championed the creation of international institutions, norms, and alliances that helped create a more stable, prosperous, and just world. It can do it again.”

That, indeed, will be the effort, ambitious though it is for a man who is likely to be a one-term President. Biden’s plan to call a ‘Summit of Democracies’ is neither rhetoric nor merely a tactical challenge to China. This is a President who will come into office with Franklin Roosevelt on his mind, and how the US led the formation of the United Nations and the institutions on which the liberal international order is built. As the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright wrote in The Atlantic recently, “His presidency may be the establishment’s last, best chance to demonstrate that liberal internationalism is a superior strategy to populist nationalism.” It is also the key to maintaining America’s global leadership.

Where does India fit in all this?

As the rising competition from China first became apparent during the George W Bush administration, its first instinct was to assume that the US-China competition would take the form of military confrontation, mostly over specific Chinese goals such as integrating Taiwan, the South China Sea disputes, and perhaps Beijing’s aspiration to be the regional hegemon in Asia. Indeed, even the date by which such a confrontation was expected to come to a head was forecast – 2020.

However, in 2020, it is apparent that China does not seek to be just a regional hegemon, but to surpass the US itself as the world’s next Superpower and upend the US-led world order – replace the Washington Consensus with a Beijing Consensus, as it were. And it wants to do so by overtaking the US economically (which it is on track to doing), technologically, diplomatically, and eventually, militarily. It is to these ends that China is pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative and Made in China 2025.

The Bush administration saw building a partnership with India as one in which it would help India beef up its military capabilities and its ability to interoperate with US forces. It was a time when India was rising economically, starting to register 7%-plus growth during the Manmohan Singh years. India was seen as a natural counterweight to China.

Most importantly, the US-India partnership was based, at its core, on shared values of democracy, and a new-found understanding in New Delhi that helping sustain the US-led liberal international order was helpful to India’s own rise, and key to its security. Manmohan Singh was at the helm, and India was on the path of deepening democracy and promoting a citizens’ rights-based agenda, out of which came the Right to Information, Right to Education, the rural jobs guarantee scheme, the food security law, etc.

It were these – India’s democratic credentials, economic growth, commitment to the liberal international order, and it being a natural counterweight to China – that have ensured India bipartisan support in the US Congress for nearly two decades. The bilateral partnership was built through four successive Presidents, including Donald Trump. All of these credentials will be required in full measure for that momentum to be maintained during the Biden years.

Worryingly, there are already signs of strains between the Modi government and the incoming US administration. As Kahl and Berengaut noted in their article on the post-coronavirus world disorder, “…the crisis could produce further democratic backsliding. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, democracy was under siege worldwide with countries such as Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, and Turkey trending toward more authoritarian and populist leaders…There are compelling reasons to believe Covid-19 will deepen and widen this trend.”

Worse, in the very first conversation between Modi and Biden, a congratulatory call to the President-elect, the strains became visible. The Biden-Harris team’s read-out of the conversation underlined “strengthening democracy at home and overseas” and “equality under the law, freedom of expression and religion” as shared values; the Indian government’s transcript glossed over those references.

What’s more, the Indian economy has been on a downward trend since demonetisation and is now in the midst of a recession, with economic growth expected to return to even the relatively low pre-Covid-19 levels only by 2022-23 at the earliest.

The US-China/Russia rivalry will inevitably become an ideological confrontation. If the world’s lucky, it’ll be another Cold War. The Modi government will have to think what it can bring to the table with the US if the Indian economy continues to sink and so do India’s democratic credentials. Would it be happy with, at best, a Cold Peace with America?

(Published 29 November 2020, 05:25 IST)

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