Joe Biden and South Asia | Daily News

Joe Biden and South Asia

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

US President-elect Biden’s administration will be faced with a number of mounting challenges at home and abroad to restore the buoyancy and lost ego of the sole superpower at the global stage.

Domestically, the greatest task is how to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic as the disease has brought havoc to the American nation and has raised doubts over the capability and potential of the US healthcare system and its general capacity to arrest the rising wave of polarisation that has plagued the overall system of governance.

At the international level, particularly for the South Asian theatre, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan are of pivotal significance in the region that the new administration will engage with, although with varying intensity and interests. In contrast to his predecessor, the mercurial Trump, Biden has vast prior experience in dealing with the region. Hence, his regime is expected to be more consistent and predictable in policymaking for the wider South Asian region.

Being the lone global power, the US must not look at the region from a narrow prism of its rivalry with China and an increasing bonhomie with India. The new administration must not be oblivious to the fact that, despite its incredible potential, South Asia still remains one of the least inter-connected regions of the world in terms of regional trade, investment and travel. With over 1.7 billion inhabitants, which is about one-fourth of the global population, South Asia is one of the most dynamic but also one of the least integrated regions.

For instance, if inter-regional trade is about 25 percent in the ASEAN countries, in South Asia, “intraregional trade accounts for just five percent of total trade”. Considering their shared history, culture and so many commonalities, it is a shame that the South Asian region, which has traditionally remained under the Indian influence, has not fared well in terms of bilateral trade among themselves.

Here are some eye-opening statistics pertaining to bilateral trade among nations of different regions. In stark contrast to South Asia, intra-regional trade accounts for 69 percent of the total international trade of European countries, 50 percent in North America, 27 percent in South and Central America and 13 percent in Africa. We, South Asians, are worse even than Africa when it comes to ease of travel and trade among ourselves. This is despite the fact that, as per a World Bank report, “about 399 million people – 40 percent of the world’s poor – live on less than $1.25 a day” in South Asia. The region has “the greatest hunger burden, with about 281 million undernourished people”. Similarly, “an estimated 57 percent of out-of-school children never go to school”. More than 200 million residents have their permanent abode in slums and about 500 million people in the region have no access to electricity.

I provide these agonising statistics to reinforce the argument that any new US policy for the region’s actors must take into account that such strategy needs to favour not specific security or foreign policy goals but the poor people of these countries in terms of access to education, health, energy, employment opportunities and decent infrastructure. While it is somehow unlikely to be the case, the Biden presidency must bear in mind the myriad socio-economic and development challenges that the region faces. Any new policy must not further heighten tensions between the two largest countries and nuclear powers of South Asia, but should aim at building trust and easing the troubled ties for the benefit of the vast population of the region with sustainable development outcomes as the overarching objective.

There is no doubt that the US is really apprehensive about the growing role of China in the region under the BRI/CPEC. However, the US response to a growing China has been equally dismal. Rather than coming up with its own policy initiatives aiming at creating economic opportunities for the countries of the region, the US has adopted strategies that have the potential to further raise geopolitical tensions and antagonise regional actors.

In this respect, two recent developments warrant some contemplation. First, the reinvigoration of ‘the Quad’. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo gathered in Tokyo in October for the second ministerial of ‘the Quad (the Quadrilateral)’. These countries had originally joined hands a decade and a half ago as the ‘Core Group’ to provide urgent humanitarian assistance following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster. However, they only met once at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2007 and since then the Quad had mostly remained dormant.

There was subsequently a working-level meeting of the grouping, and a maritime exercise in 2007. The Quad was revived in November 2017 and, since then, has met regularly at the working- and ministerial levels. The recent Tokyo meeting, held in person despite the Covid-19 pandemic, demonstrates the resolve of the four like-minded countries. Although they do not mention China explicitly, their words and actions indicate a coalition of the willing and capable that seeks to ensure a favourable balance of power. Analysts deem the Quad as an Asian Nato aimed at countering a rising China for fortifying their own trade and security interests in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

Second, in October, the US and India signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which grants India real-time access to American geospatial intelligence. The agreement aims at enabling India in improving accuracy of Indian missiles, armed drones and automated systems. Again, the move illustrates America’s continued pro-India articulation that has destabilising potential for the region. Not only this, a report titled ‘Rising to the China Challenge: Renewing American Competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific’, prepared for the Congress by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), has clearly recommended that to pursue its China-containment policy, the US needs to “allow exemptions to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for countries seeking to balance against China”. The report suggests that “Congress should therefore allow CAATSA exemptions for Indo-Pacific states that wish to procure Russian weapons, provided these weapons would be used to balance against China”.

It is not out of place to mention that recently Washington galvanised sanctions on Ankara under the same CAATSA when the latter refused to cancel its S-400 surface-to-air defence system from Moscow. The US, like every sovereign nation, has the right to formulate policies to safeguard its own interests. However, to contain the rising Chinese influence, the new US administration must take into account the socio-economic and security perspectives of other countries in South Asia.

Traditionally, Democrats have remained strong advocates of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression. It is to be seen how the Biden presidency will respond to such ‘American values’ as his vice-president-elect Kamala Harris had spoken about these subjects during the election campaign. Overall, however, it is unlikely to witness a drastic change of policy towards India because New Delhi’s significant clout makes it the only formidable ally in the region against the ever-growing Chinese role in South Asia.

That said, the US policy of containing Beijing via primarily military means seems inherently a flawed one. As elaborated earlier, South Asian countries need economic assistance more than security-related package. The fact is that when it comes to creating an atmosphere for greater global public goods and win-win cooperation and in investing in connectivity initiatives across countries and regions, unlike Beijing, Washington seems to be in want of both the vital wherewithal as well as political will.

To this end, granted that the US is faced with its own financial crunch at home owing to the pandemic; nevertheless, the US should come up with investment initiatives aimed at enhancing financial and trade links in the region with improved infrastructure and should assist South Asian countries to remove trust deficit and eliminate trade barriers. Any such US-backed and locally-owned move would significantly boost inter-regional trade and investments and would eventually lead to calm regional tensions. Such an initiative could be more fruitful for US interests in the region. Connectivity and infrastructure projects are a much more effective tools to create a win-win situation for the region’s countries and to counterbalance the rising role of Beijing in the region, rather than to focus primarily on military means intended to equip India against China.

Whether it is in the context of Afghanistan or Pakistan, after protracted conflict and insurgency, any new approach and policy for the region must combine economic assistance and maintain some form of security succour to enable the US in maintaining stability in both Afghanistan and the larger South Asian region. Rather than relying solely on military might to resolve regional conflict or to maintain hegemony, the new administration must put more emphasis on the economic needs of the region.

To this end, as has been done in the past, the US could use its leverage in multilateral organisations such as the World Bank, the ADB and the IMF, to maximize the benefits of development interventions via economic aid and reduce a direct burden on US taxpayers. Such initiatives have largely remained successful in the past. During his tenure as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden, along with Senator Richard Lugar was instrumental in the promulgation of the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, known as the Kerry–Lugar Bill (KLB). The bipartisan bill, tripling non-military aid to the country, authorized the provision of $1.5 billion to Pakistan annually for five years (2010–2014).

It is unfortunate that some elements within Pakistan termed the KLB as intended for the ‘micromanagement of Pakistan’. While terrorism certainly remained an area of high priority for the US, the main impetus behind the KLB was to broaden US engagement with Pakistan and help the country in terms of economic challenges: to help in the creation of jobs, improvement of infrastructure, education, healthcare and energy sectors. Despite so many shortcomings on both sides, the KLB helped in a number of areas and sectors as US economic assistance played a pivotal part in enabling a conflict and disaster-affected Pakistan to respond effectively when confronted with man-induced (read terrorism) and natural hazards (floods). Hence, the new administration should think of such economic initiatives for the conflict-affected and financially fragile countries of South Asia.

As Democrats have conventionally perceived Beijing as a ‘competitor’ and not primarily as an antagonist, a kind of a more assuaging and benign stance towards China’s BRI/CPEC could bring substantial dividends to South Asian countries. A number of experts are of the view that the BRI could be a potentially win-win situation for American investors and companies -- provided both Washington and Beijing agree on international norms, values and principles meant to create a conducive environment of mutual trust and reconciliation. This will significantly reduce pressure on Pakistan and other South Asian countries which are part of the BRI. However, if the ongoing atmosphere of distrust and paranoia characterised by the US-China trade war and the expulsion of diplomats persist, it will certainly have considerable implications for the region.

In any situation, we hope and wish that sanity prevails in the power corridors in White House and Pentagon. However, if things do not go the way they are expected from a seasoned statesman like Biden and if the new administration trumps outgoing Trump’s China-containment policy and comes up with a more aggressive carrot and stick approach, Islamabad must be prepared to maintain a balance between the two powers.

(The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand.) (The News International)