Biden also needs to assure Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, in particular, that the US will play its traditional role of supporting its allies in the Pacific. A lot of bridge-building will be necessary in South Korea, which watched with bemused concern Trump’s desperate attempts to strike an accord with North Korea. As the drama see-sawed through photo opportunities between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and as Trump sought to make Seoul pay more for its defense (or the troops would get withdrawn), South Koreans had legitimate fears over continued American backing. Biden will be able to restore balance, but North Korea will test his patience and tolerance.
Biden may find the choppy waters further south relatively easier to navigate. The constitutionally limited single term of the maverick in ASEAN, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, ends in 2022, and Biden would hope that his successor would be a more reasonable leader. Elsewhere in ASEAN, politics is hardly dull. Malaysia is going through an unstable time, and Thailand is convulsed with street protests. But Biden is unlikely to spend much political capital on Southeast Asia. As ASEAN member states have joined the RCEP, American leverage with the region has certainly diminished.
South Asia poses yet another challenge. Since the time of George W Bush, if not Bill Clinton, American presidents have at last decoupled India and Pakistan, and do not see South Asia as a region to perform a balancing act. American presidents have also been visiting India during their first term, and not keeping an Indian trip as a “goodwill” gesture towards the end of their tenure for photo-ops at the Taj Mahal and Mohandas Gandhi’s memorial, as tended to be the custom in the past. Strategic relations between India and the US will remain close, but only up to a point. American defense hawks are not willing to trust India fully, while India’s sovereignty-minded strategic experts are not keen to comply with American demands for access. But both their militaries have been organizing joint exercises, which will continue.
Biden represents a mixed blessing for India. Indians keen to travel to the United States or live and work there can expect an easier visa regime – in particular the prized H1B stamps for non-immigrant professional employees. This is significant. Many Indian tech companies have relied on those visas to post their engineers in the US, and the resulting boom has benefited both the US and Indian economies. Trump had imposed severe restrictions on the number of visas and has set severe salary requirements which, if implemented, would reduce such visas by more than 90 percent. That would be terrible for the US tech sector, but that was never Trump’s concern; Silicon Valley did not really support Trump’s agenda in any case.
But even if Biden makes it easier for Indians (and others) to travel to and work in the United States, India itself would be wary. There have been several reports about Biden’s remarks on human rights – in particular, he was in the US Senate when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was denied a visa to travel to the US in the early 2000s, when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat state, where nearly a thousand people had died in a pogrom, two-thirds of the victims being Muslims.
Besides, as vice president, Kamala Harris is not going to mince words: She has been critical of India’s suspension of special privileges for the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir, which India bifurcated in 2019, jailing opposition leaders without trial. A controversial citizenship act, which makes it easier for refugees of all religions other than Islam from India’s neighborhood to acquire citizenship if they wish, and a process of enumerating Indians to establish a national registry, have alarmed human-rights experts. And rightly so, given that India’s government is unabashedly Hindu nationalist.
Harris’s mother was born in India, but Indians should expect no special favors from either Biden or her, who both view such actions by Delhi poorly. Even though the US sees China as an adversary, and even though China and India have been involved in a border skirmish that has been bloody, despite assurances from Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo during a recent visit, few in India would expect the US to offer meaningful assistance, should Sino-Indian tensions rise again.
With Pakistan, Biden’s primary concern will be security. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state, which borders Afghanistan. Washington has already withdrawn a significant number of troops from Afghanistan; the extent to which that will accelerate will depend on strategic considerations, and not overtly political ones, as was being done in the Trump era. Afghanistan remains unstable, and that has a huge impact on Pakistan, which can have a domino effect on India.
Biden has wanted to be president for a long time. He first ran in 1988, then again in 2008. A younger US leader would have been more energetic, but a mature, weathered president is more likely to be astute and wiser in dealing with the many challenges the incoming administration faces. From repairing the global architecture to reviving the US economy, from vanquishing the virus to restoring decency and civility at home and abroad, his agenda is full. He can be excused for paying less attention to many crises than what they deserve. But he cannot afford to ignore any of them.