Evaluating the Strategic Significance of Biden’s Foreign Policy towards India-Pakistan

Khadijah Saeed / Furqan Khan

The whole world has set its awaiting eyes upon the White House as the 46th President of the United States of America is going to take charge this month. Experts are debating around the contours of the President-elect Joe Biden administration’s approach towards different geopolitical hotspots of the American foreign policy. Among these, Biden’s anticipated foreign policy approach towards South Asia is of growing importance to regional peace and stability as the two nuclear states i.e. Pakistan and India, have turned cold over the past few years. This brings us to the central question of how is the new administration in the White House going to respond to the developments in South Asia?

Under President Trump, however, the relations between India and the U.S. are cozier than ever. Irrespective of Biden’s expectedly reconciliatory approach towards China, the mutual concerns about China will continue to keep both the countries in strategic partnership against the rising China and its assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. Besides a huge level of trade partnership between the two countries, the US desire for greater Indian role in the Pacific as a strategic bulwark against China will continue to build stronger defense ties with New Delhi. For instance, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) as the last of the four fundamental defense agreement the US does with its allies, will deepen the defense cooperation between the two states. Therefore, China’s rise as a mutual threat and a shared responsibility to protect the rule based order in the Indo-Pacific leaves room for both the countries advance their strategic partnership.

Immediate and complete overturn of foreign policy cannot be prophesied by the Biden administration, however, the President elect Joe Biden Presidency will have the institutional stability and case for human rights as among its ‘earliest priorities’. Trump’s official visit to India in February 2020 was the height of his muted response to the human right violations, when he stayed muted on the continuing oppression of minorities especially on the Delhi Pogrom. More importantly, Trump remained less concerned about the controversial legislative changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir and the gross violations of human rights. However, Biden is more critical to human rights violations which is one the three immediate priorities, in addition to fighting corruption and authoritarian regimes. The Vice President-elect Kamal Haris, in presidential voiced concerns over Indian human rights violations in Kashmir; she not only reminded Kashmiris that “they are not alone”, but also called for a need “to intervene if the situation demands”. This shows the administration will keep India in check for its actions vis-à-vis Kashmir and India minorities which should bring an end to the impunity India has enjoyed over the years under President Trump.

On the other hand, the relations between Washington and Islamabad have seen many ebb and flows, more frequently under Trump administration. The cord that connects these two countries is Afghanistan. Following tensions after Trump’s severe criticism of Islamabad’s inability to crackdown on terrorists, in the last two years of Trump administration, Islamabad and Washington have come to a cordial phase based on U.S needs and Pakistan’s interest. The U.S desire to bring an end to the ‘Long War’ in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s leverage in facilitating the US-Taliban Peace Talks has kept the two countries in close relationship.

President Biden remained relatively favorable to Pakistan under Obama administration for his role in approving Kerry Lugar Bill and appreciating Pakistan’s commitment to fight the US-led global war on terror as the frontline ally. Moreover, Biden’s interest in keeping a considerable presence in Afghanistan and strategic relevance of the region is likely to grow Pak-U.S. relations even stronger in the coming years. Also, Biden administration’s relatively vocal approach towards Kashmir and human rights gives Pakistan an anchorage to dynamically highlight the issue of disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in the international community, a top foreign policy agenda adopted especially after India’s illegal revocation of the special status of the disputed territory in August 2019.

In the nutshell, the kind of pro-India tilt visible in Trump’s foreign policy is less likely to continue as Biden administration will play by the rules of strategic engagement which means a balance approach is expected; it also means engaging India as a close strategic partner vis-à-vis China but also keeping Pakistan at arm’s length to bring stability in Afghanistan.

Washington’s foreign policy approach towards New Delhi and Islamabad are motivated by America’s strategic concerns about China’s rise and growing assertiveness on the one hand while withdrawal from Afghanistan as a strategic necessity on the other. Therefore, the continuing conflicts between Pakistan and India have consequences for both the underlying strategic objectives. Therefore, the success of Biden administration’s foreign policy approach towards South Asia depends on his likelihood to convince both Pakistan and India and bring to the table as part of his commitment of conflict resolution. The efforts of conflict resolution through mediation of the core issues between Pakistan and India including Kashmir can be prognosticated by Washington and is inevitable for maintaining a comprehensive strategic environment favorable Washington’s interests in the region.