[In-depth] Biden Administration’s China Policy – Issues, India’s Concerns, Way Forward

The Biden Administration, which currently lacks its own China strategy, is looking to continue and expand Trump-era foreign policies. These protectionist and unilateral policies create challenges while implementing long-term policies focusing on creating a balance of power with China. This shortcoming is also making it difficult for the US to forge alliances with other countries to oppose China’s expansionism and exploitative trade ties. This is especially true when it comes to India, which is facing several new challenges under the Biden Administration. The US conducting the freedom of navigation operations in Indian waters without prior consent is a case in point.

US China Policy

What are the challenges faced by the US while dealing with China?

  • The United States does not have a concrete China policy and this was especially highlighted by the Trump Administration’s inconsistent approach.
  • For instance, while the Biden Administration is looking to end the Trade War, there is no strategy on how to improve the trade ties with China.
  • The reasons behind this drawback are:
  1. Lack of bipartisan consensus on China Policy
  2. High influence of domestic politics
  3. Differences in opinions on priority areas at different levels. Eg: While state governments support Chinese investments, Congress seeks to oppose the same.
  • The rapid growth of the Chinese economy and the lack of understanding of cultural differences make setting policy agenda difficult.
  • Lack of global support for an anti-China alliance led by the US due to the differences in economic and strategic priorities.

How did US-China ties fare under the Trump Administration?

  • The Trump Administration’s China policy was more focused on economic ties, with American protectionism taking the forefront.
  • Most of President Trump’s policies sought to reduce the American economy’s dependence on China.
  • These policies resulted in escalating the US-China tensions centring on trade and later on technology and finance.
  • They did little to reduce the US dependence on China and have adversely impacted the American economy.
  • The trade war against China, which sought to boost domestic employment opportunities, resulted in the loss of a large number of American jobs.

  • Several of the issues the Trump Administration sought to address remained intact. These include the follows:
  1. It failed to remove government assistance to Chinese firms
  2. American firms still maintain Chinese operations despite the imposition of high tariffs and retaliatory duties. None of these firms is seeking to return to the US shores.
  3. Trump Administration has failed to protect the intellectual properties of the American firms as committed to during the campaign. Little has changed under President Trump as the same share of American companies operating in China reported that their businesses were hindered by the IP infringements
  4. Trump has also failed to reduce the US trade deficit with China. Rather than declining, the monthly deficit with China has averaged slightly bigger than during the Obama administration. This was especially true with the advent of the pandemic
  • Regardless of these failures, Trump’s policies have created a permanent alteration in the US’ China policies by changing the American attitude towards China. It had played a decisive role in tarnishing China’s reputation in the US.
  • At the international level, certain Trump’s foreign policies have provided China more advantage. These include:
  1. Leaving key international forums like UNHRC, WHO, Trans-Pacific Partnership etc., allowed China to portray itself as a superpower
  2. Lack of effective COVID-19 strategy and diplomacy
  3. Squabble with NATO allies and others

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

What is the Biden administration’s China policy?

  • The Biden Administration’s China policy is more measured when compared with its predecessor.
  • However, in some aspects, it is preserving or exacerbating several of the confrontational policies of the Trump Administration.
  • The government has continued several of Trump Administration’s policies like:
  1. Barring American investments in Chinese firms having ties with defence and surveillance technology development.
  2. Retaining Trump’s tariffs on China as well as the “Phase I” trade agreement in which China agreed to make rapid purchases of specific American goods like agricultural products, oil and gas etc.
  3. Maintaining and enhancing the US relationship with Taiwan
  • It is upping its ante in criticising the China-led Belt and Road Initiative and the human rights violation in Xinjiang.
  • Biden’s Administration adopted a competitive approach to counter China. It is focusing more on improving the US’ competitiveness with China in the economic front and high-tech areas like AI, 6G etc.
  • The only notable effort taken by the Biden Administration in cooperating with China was the participation of President Xi Jinping in the US-led Leaders Summit on Climate that was held on 22 April this year.
  • Thus, the climate crisis is expected to be an area of cooperation between the two countries. However, this too may turn into rivalry given Biden Administration’s increased pressure on China to set more ambitious targets.
  • Other areas of cooperation identified by the two sides during the first high-level meeting are geopolitical issues pertaining to Iran, North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan.
  • With little progress towards normalising the bilateral ties with China, the US government is currently prioritising improving relations with the American allies, which were tarnished under the Trump Administration.
  • Forming an anti-China alliance may prove to be challenging as many countries have close trade and investment relations with China. Since Biden won elections, the EU, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN have inked new economic agreements with Beijing.
  • Thus, there is a high possibility of Biden’s China policy becoming either less confrontational or more unilateral.

What are the current challenges faced by the India-US ties?

  • The early days of the Biden Administration brought several notable challenges for the US-India ties. These include:
  1. Freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) conducted inside India’s EEZ near Lakshadweep without permission from the Indian Government
  2. Lack of/delayed support for India to counter the COVID-19 crisis. This comes even as India had earlier provided essential drugs when the US was struggling to supply them during the first wave.
  3. The US is pressuring India to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050. New Delhi is opposing this, as it may be the most impacted due to its fast-paced economic growth and higher emissions.
  • The Biden Administration had earlier invoked the US Defense Production Act to ban the export of critical raw materials for manufacturing vaccines and other medical equipment.
  • The Trump Administration’s separation of American values from foreign policies has triggered the Democrats (opposition) to emphasise the importance of integrating American values with the foreign policy agenda. These agendas are prioritising domestic politics over strategic requirements. This brings India-related human rights allegations to the forefront. Eg: Abrogation of Article 370
  • Tense economic ties between the two countries are also posing diplomatic challenges. Some of these include:
  1. The US revoked preferential trade status for India under the Generalised System of Preferences.
  2. The US’ proposal of retaliatory tariff after India decided to impose Digital Services Tax.

What are the impacts of these challenges on India’s China policy?

US’ Covid diplomacy:

  • China saw India’s close ties with the US over the recent years as a cause for concern, especially the revival of QUAD.
  • With Biden Administration being too slow to assist during India’s COVID-19 crisis, China openly accused the US of being an unreliable ally and called for closer ties with India.
  • However, China’s assistance is limited to expediting cargo flights loaded with medical supplies. Beijing has not yet offered government-to-government aid to India and the latter is unlikely to accept such support due to trust deficit.
  • Regardless, China used this to point out the limitations of the US-India ties.

Rules-based order:

  • The US’ Freedom of Navigation patrol inside India’s EEZ without prior notification to the Indian Government deviates from India and the US’ call for rules-based international order in opposition to China’s foreign policies.
  • This navigation goes against the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1982, which is accepted by many countries, including India.
  • It dents the possibility of potential US-India cooperation towards a common Indo-Pacific policy targeting Chinese influence in the region.
  • The recent FONOP in Indian waters is seen as Biden Administration’s unwillingness to accept India’s close defence ties with Russia and its opposition to the S-400 purchase.
  • India, despite these pressures, is averse to compromising its traditional ties with Russia, which supplies the majority of India’s defence procurement, including technological transfer.
  • While the US too has contributed to India’s defence inventory, it has increased import dependence with little to no technological transfer.
  • These challenges make it difficult for India to back the US-led rules-based international order, which has long been opposed by China.

US’ short-term policies:

  • Due to its geostrategic position, India is critical for the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy
  • However, the US’ intrusion into India’s strategic autonomy creates challenges for New Delhi while improving ties with Washington.
  • This significantly undermines the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
  • The QUAD alliance’ legitimacy is also questioned because of the lack of agreement on the common definition of “rules-based order”.

What can be the way forward?

  • Several differences in human rights-related issues pose challenges to India-US ties, making it difficult to create a collective opposition against China’s growing hegemony.
  • Thus, New Delhi must put in place a two-pronged strategy for addressing differences in human rights-related issues:
  1. Closer political engagements with the US lawmakers
  2. Rivalling the US’ approach towards China’s human rights violations by highlighting its apprehension towards such Chinese policies and creating an economic alliance against the same.
  • Some of the areas where the cooperation can be improved are:
  1. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan: The American forces stationed in Afghanistan will leave the country by September 11. India and the US must work to resolve differences in engagement with the Taliban and the possibility of a power-sharing agreement between the militant group and the Afghan government. While India must consider the domestic pressure for Biden Administration to withdraw from Afghanistan, the US must consider the long-term implications of the Taliban-led government. These include Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and terrorism.
  2. Indo-Pacific is one of the few areas where the two countries have common interests. The focus areas of Indo-Pacific cooperation may include green technology, digital innovation and reliable supply chains for 5G technology and critical minerals.
  3. Climate crisis is of general concern for all countries across the globe. It is one of the few areas where common grounds can be achieved while not compromising national interests. India and the US can work towards a common strategy in line with the Paris Agreement.
  4. QUAD can be strengthened to create collective security against China’s illegal claims in the Indo-Pacific. This alliance can also jointly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. QUAD’s ambitious partnership to boost COVID-19 vaccine production is a step in the right direction.
  5. A strong D10 (an alliance of 10 democracies seeking alternatives to 5G equipment and other technologies to reduce dependence on China) can act as the counter to China’s tech dominance
  6. Reforming WTO for enabling decisive response against China’s unfair trade practices
  7. Infrastructure projects rivalling BRI in developing countries
  • Working through common issues such as these is critical for creating a balance of power against China.
  • The US must prioritise its long-term interests when it comes to dealing with India’s close defence ties with Russia. Any sanctions against India’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 would setback for both countries’ strategic interests.
  • While improving ties with the US and balancing conflicts of interests, India must supplement them with:
  1. Improved economic ties with the EU and the UK
  2. Increasing focus on US-free multilateral groups of strategic importance like India-France-Australia trilateral
  • These are critical for safeguarding India from the US’ unilateralism and protectionism.

Conclusion:

Trump-era China policies are gaining bipartisan support due to the backing of the Biden Administration. Therefore, they are likely to continue and expand over the years. While this may be seen as a favourable outcome for India, novel challenges are arising under the Biden Administration, whose foreign policies are influenced by domestic politics rather than national interests. Thus, New Delhi must work towards improving political ties the US and diversifying its alliances to reduce risks and create a strategy that is free from the US’ influence and based on its own national interests.

Practice question for mains:

Critically examine the implications of the Biden Administration’s foreign policies on India’s China policy. Enumerate potential areas of cooperation between the US and India for countering China’s hegemony. (250 words)

Referred Sources

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https://www.bbc.com/news/business-57334265

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