By ANBOUND Research Center (Malaysia)*
When India was being roped into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) back in November 2017, it was not decisively committed to the grouping’s agenda in balancing China in the maritime security domain. At that time, New Delhi was articulating that its engagement in the Indo-Pacific region (a geographically demarcated area by the grouping) was premised upon its Act East policy which seeks active cooperation with its Southeast Asian counterparts in the East. Without question, such articulation was a safe bet that provided a leeway for India not to be perceived as joining a security alliance against Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region.
Since then, regional dynamics have shifted unlike the past. In this year 2020 alone, the COVID-19 pandemic not only challenges the domestic legitimacies of political regimes throughout the world (including US and India), it also generated far-reaching repercussions in the international stage. Among all, it fuelled a historic level of negative perception in the developed world on China ⸺ the first country to handle COVID-19 cases with mixed international opinions. This has been documented well by Pew Research Center’s October 2020 poll which highlighted Beijing’s handling of the pandemic as one of the main points of contention for the wider public among the 14 countries surveyed. For India, however, its current animosity towards China spans beyond that.
In the midst of containing the COVID-19 pandemic, India is mired into a border conflict with China in the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Following reports of military casualties from the Indian side, public anger has boiled up throughout the country, culminating in waves of anti-China campaigns by all levels of society. Not only China-made products were burnt and shunned away by sellers and purchasers, hoteliers also banned Chinese tourists into their hotels despite doing so would cause profit losses to the struggling industry.
As for the Indian government, New Delhi decisively banned 43 Chinese apps from operating in its soil, tightened customs clearance of Chinese cargo containers in the ports and halted those infrastructure projects that involved the participations of the Chinese enterprises. Even until today, anti-China sentiment remained high in India despite the June’s climax that witnessed widespread public anger and patriotic movements against China, have come to an end. With the current level of public animosity toward China, there is no way back to the 2017 situation in which India appeared to be less confrontational to its giant neighbour next door.
The Coming Biden Presidency for India
Adding to the deterioration of India-China relations in 2020 is another game-changing event that occurred in the US. In a close contest that spanned a few days, John Biden was touted as the winner of the presidential election in early November, putting an end to four years of Trump’s presidency. With the unprecedented victory, Washington is preparing for the transition of American presidency which among all, an early articulation of Biden’s foreign policy that focus on re-affirming partnerships and alliances with like-minded countries around the world.
As far as India is concerned, it is expected that a continuity of US-India partnership is in the offing since President-elect Biden is a known figure for closer bilateral ties during the Obama administration. This has been affirmed by Biden’s reply to Modi’s congratulatory message in which the former stated a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region as one of several needs for both Washington and New Delhi to cooperate in tackling global challenges. In an extension to that, nominated US State Secretary, Anthony Blinken even singled out assertive China as the common challenge for both countries to deal with when he gave his speech during the virtual panel discussions on US-India relations and Indian Americans back on August 2020.
As noted by Akriti Vasudeva in his recent piece in The Diplomat, notwithstanding India’s list of human rights issues that may lead to Washington criticizing New Delhi (as would any Democratic administrations will), the incoming Biden administration will largely see India as a like-minded partner due to the shared China challenge by both countries and as such, the former will continue supporting the South Asian nation in substantial ways albeit with tone-down rhetorical attacks on Beijing. Echoing Vasudeva’s view is Michael Krugman of Wilson Center who sees both Trump and incoming Biden administrations demonstrate a rare convergence when comes to their partnership’s quest with India ⸺ a term that he calls “strategic imperative” in balancing China in the Indo-Pacific region. In short, there is no question that US-India partnership stands to be deepened when the Biden administration begins its term on January 20, 2021.
Altered Regional Order
Given the prevailing dynamics affecting India’s relations with China, alongside the incoming Biden presidency factor at this juncture, the regional order has been fundamentally altered so much so that it difficult to return to the “old” order before the COVID-19 pandemic. Any argument calling for India to return to reason and cooperate with China not only overlooked the difficulty of resolving territorial disputes and the depth of anti-China sentiment among the Indian public today but also, downplayed the vicious power play that Beijing found itself into vis-à-vis the US and other Quad nations of Japan, Australia and India.
With unbridgeable differences among India-China and Quad-China, both of these national and regional dynamics will likely span beyond the short-term period. In fact, they will continue to influence the nation’s strategic calculations at least in the medium-term. This can be either through balancing China independently or together with other Quad partners or both at the same time.
By all means, it is time for all quarters to wake up to the reality that the pre-COVID “old” regional order to which power play among powers is restricted to both US and China, has been fundamentally altered by the pandemic. What we have today is the period of full and open power play between the two camps, namely US-led Quad (US, Japan, Australia and India) and China, that transcends the three main domains, namely, security (including military), economic (free trade or economic comprehensive partnership) and high-tech (supply chains).
*ANBOUND Research Center (Malaysia) is an independent think tank situated in Kuala Lumpur, registered (1006190-U) with laws and regulations of Malaysia. The think tank also provides advisory service related to regional economic development and policy solution. For any feedback, please contact: [email protected].