Back to the future

Topics Joe Biden | United States | NATO

Over the weekend, US President Joe Biden’s speeches at two virtual conferences sent out the important signal that America was making a return to multilateralism. “America is back,” he declared at a security conference in Munich, indicating a revival of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance that his predecessor had chosen to weaken. Later, in his first address to G7 nation leaders, he spoke of tackling the three “immediate global crises”: The pandemic, economic crisis, and climate change. These statements are reiterations of Mr Biden’s stated positions but they were greeted with relief by America’s allies in Europe and the Pacific. The prospect of a return to international treaties such as the Paris agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal are back on the table. Taken together with his earlier statements, Mr Biden has made it clear that the combative, transactional foreign policy style of the Trump era is being replaced by a nuanced approach. This includes dialling back on the bilateral trade war with China and working with the G7 towards ending what he called Beijing’s “non-market-oriented policies and practices”.

For India, the return to the mean presents opportunities and challenges. The Biden administration can be depended on to replace the somewhat scratchy relationship of the Trump administration with some level of predictability. This much was clear in the third ministerial meeting of the US-Australia-Japan-India Quad, where the foreign ministers underlined their shared attributes as democracies, market economies, and pluralistic societies, which directly addressed China’s expansionist policies. And Mr Biden’s commitment to loosening H1B visa quotas would go a long way towards addressing a four-year-old grievance of the Indian information technology industry. Beyond that, there are many question marks. The Biden administration’s inclination to re-engage with China, for instance, has the potential to complicate Indo-US relations in unforeseen ways, not least because of the powerful overlapping connections between Sino-US corporate interests. A trade deal, long in the making, is the other known unknown. The anticipation here is that the Biden administration will restore the Generalised System of Preferences, a preferential tariff system for developing countries, which the Trump administration had scrapped for India.

But this cannot be taken for granted. Minister of Commerce Piyush Goyal has said the unfinished mini-trade deal awaits a meeting with the new US trade representative, Katherine Tai, but it is unclear whether India will make much more progress than it made under the previous US administration. For one, India’s unwillingness to submit to the relatively mild conditionality of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership makes it unlikely that it will agree to the more stringent terms that the US will demand on intellectual property right protections, procurement norms, standards and market access. India’s human rights record is also likely to come into play; the Biden administration has identified democratic values as a key variable in bilateral relations. Of course, realpolitik creates its own space for amorality in the international arena, but the fact is that India holds few trump cards at the negotiating table. So growing authoritarianism — manifested in the Central government’s actions in Jammu & Kashmir, widespread arrests of activists and regime critics, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the debacle following the passage of the farm laws — could prove a deal breaker that India’s atmanirbhar project can ill afford at this juncture.


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