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Stability of disagreements: Biden’s election may usher in a period of volatility in US-India relations

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Fifteen countries across the Asia-Pacific region recently inked an agreement on the Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is seen as the largest regional free trade accord signed to date. The signatories are Australia, China, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The United States and India – the region’s two largest countries – are notably absent from this list though. How could the Indo-American approach to the consolidation of the Asia-Pacific region change as we move on?

The RCEP deal appears to be a serious success for Beijing, promising good strategic prospects in the future. Amid its trade and technological standoff with the United States, China managed to win over to its side 14 leading Asia-Pacific countries that comprise upwards of 2.2 billion people and account for over 30 percent of the global economic output. According to the German-language business newspaper Handelsblatt, the deal “allows China to appear as a flagship of globalization and multilateral cooperation. China thus finds itself in a better position to call most of the shots in regional trade.”

The RCEP agreement may have even a greater significance for China, whose leadership initially promoted this accord as an alternative to Washington’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) project – a comprehensive trade agreement that the Obama administration spent so many years to prepare. Officially, it was meant to comprise almost all the leading countries of the Asia-Pacific region with the exception of China, while unofficially – to keep in check China’s growing influence, at least financial and economic. Now, according to many US experts, Japan and South Korea can benefit the most from RCEP by 2030. Beijing is thus setting the stage for strengthening mutually beneficial ties with two potential participants in America’s main regional military-strategic anti-Chinese project, known as the Quad (“Quadrangle”) or the Asian Entente.

At the same time, the absence of two key Quad members (US and India) from the list of RCEP participants may intensify even more the competition between various projects of strategic consolidation in Asia and the Pacific. As we know, Trump withdrew from the TPP talks just days after moving into the White House justifying his decision by the agreement’s potentially “irreparable” damage to America’s productive sector. Shortly after that, relations between Washington and Beijing began to sour. In 2018, the White House essentially declared a full-scale trade war on China, to which a financial standoff and a cold war in technology were added in 2019.

When it comes to relations with India, the new Republican administration, despite its almost demonstrative desire to distance itself from the political legacy of its predecessor, generally stayed the course charted by Barack Obama. In its foreign policy Washington prioritized an expansion of strategic ties with New Delhi, which it regarded as an ally against China’s growing role in the Asia-Pacific region. India thus acquired a “key role” in the US administration’s strategy in South Asia and during the Trump presidency the Asia-Pacific region began to be referred to by US officialdom and political experts as “the Indo-Pacific.”

In comments to Foreign Affairs journal, former national security advisor to the Indian Prime Minister Shivshankar Menon notes that during Donald Trump’s four-year stint in the White House India-US relations have only strengthened with a quantitative and qualitative expansion of ties between the two countries’ military and intelligence officers and a flurry of security agreements signed. By the close of 2019, the United States had become India’s largest trading partner, ahead of China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s September 2019 visit to the United States was a big success, just as Donald Trump’s visit to India in February 2010. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center poll, 56 percent of Indians have confidence in President Trump’s foreign policy, compared to just 29 percent globally.

At the same time, determined as he was to build up ties with India on strategic issues, Trump regularly dealt painful blows to that country’s economic interests. His policy of bringing US investments and industries “back home” led to a significant drop in US investors’ interest in Indian projects. In June 2019, Trump essentially declared a trade war on India, stripping New Delhi of trade privileges that would allow duty-free delivery of $5.6 billion worth of Indian goods to US markets. In the summer of 2020, the White House introduced visa restrictions for highly qualified Indian professionals.

The new aggravation of Washington’s policy vis-à-vis Iran came as a serious blow to India, which had to abandon its planned participation in the project for the development of the port of Chabahar, as well as the construction of a railway to Afghanistan – two key elements of the “strategic containment” of Pakistan and China in the western direction. Bending under US pressure, India was forced to look for an alternative to Iranian oil, and also lost some of its export revenues. Meanwhile, Tehran began to gravitate towards Beijing and Washington’s demands for India to scale down its military-technical cooperation with Russia were only adding to differences between India and the US.

During the campaign, Joe Biden was sending out conflicting messages to New Delhi. On the one hand, he, as well as the Indian-born vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, have been very harsh critics of India’s domestic policy, above all the elimination of Kashmir’s autonomous status, the establishment in the state of Assam of the National Register of Citizens, which resulted in 2 million local inhabitants, mainly Muslims, losing their citizenship, and a new version of the country’s citizenship law, which critics saw as open discrimination against Muslims and an attempt to undermine India’s status as a secular state. On the other hand, Biden called India a “natural partner” of the United States and promised that, if elected, he would make an expansion of bilateral ties one of his top foreign policy priorities.

Also, during his years in the US Senate, Biden played a prominent role in expanding US-India ties, including in the field of military-technical cooperation, which is extremely important for India, given its “natural” and “historical” confrontation with China – a problem, which features front and center in New Delhi’s foreign policy today. In view of the military and economic superiority of the Celestial Empire, a “counterbalance strategy” and the maximum possible rapprochement with the United States is a natural choice for New Delhi to go for.

Meanwhile, the very same Quad format is now gravitating towards solving problems of naval deterrence, which is much more in line with US, rather than Indian interests. Even though, according to The Economist, New Delhi is now prepared to consider even “some kind of military alliance” with other Quad members, the almost 3,500 km land border with China remains India’s main concern, as well as the need to contain its historical rival – Pakistan. Indian political analysts have strong doubts about Washington being ready to “fight China for the interests of India.” What they don’t doubt, however, is the need to develop the friendliest possible relations with the world’s “only superpower.”

From the standpoint of expanding economic ties between the United States and India, the situation looks even more complicated. India’s sluggish socio-economic development is the main obstacle on the way of strengthening the country’s position in Asia and elsewhere in the world. For example, India’s main formal reason for withdrawing from RCEP after seven years of negotiations, was pragmatic fears that the final agreement “would be overshadowed by China’s dominance,” which would de facto mean the conclusion of a free trade zone agreement with China – something Indian industry is unprepared for now.”

India’s economy has been hit very hard by continuing COVID-19 crisis, which has already sent the country’s GDP down by almost a quarter since January. In such circumstances, Trump’s policy of economic nationalism is seen by some US experts as shortsighted, devoid of strategic vision and detrimental to America’s long-term interests. Just as Foreign Affairs noted in January, US officials and politicians need to realize that pressuring allies to equalize the rules of trade can’t overshadow the overarching goal of confronting China. And to this end, Washington must assist the economic development of countries such as India.

That being said, however, the rise in Trump’s popularity showed that the ideas of protecting the national economy very much resonate with the American public. Therefore, a realization of the need to simultaneously take into account the interests of the new economic sectors, so vital for the globalization process to go forward, and also of the tens of millions of voters, whose incomes are tied to traditional industries, objectively limits the freedom of economic maneuver for any future US administration. All the more so since the Indian authorities are embracing, just like Trump, the ideas of economic pragmatism by openly encouraging national production and limiting foreign competition.

And last, but certainly not least, New Delhi is wary of the fact that during his stint as Barack Obama’s Vice President, Joe Biden supported the policy of “involving” China in international institutions under the auspices of the West, and of promoting across-the-board trade and economic relations with Beijing. However, during the election campaign, Biden kept ratcheting up his rhetoric against the People’s Republic to the point of pledging to take a “tough” stance towards Beijing.

Still, when and if Biden is finally declared president, he will need the support of the left wing of the Democratic Party. As a result, the idea of ​​bringing America’s foreign policy back to where it was before Trump, including unconditional support for New Delhi in the spirit of Realpolitik, may fall victim to a compromise with the “progressives.”

Overall, the current state of India-US relations looks highly controversial. On the one hand, relations between the two have noticeably improved in some areas. On the other, the field of interaction has significantly narrowed. The main reason for the rapprochement between India and the United States of the past few years was their mutual concern about China’s growing power and influence. As we all know from history, it is always easier to be friends “against” someone, but such “friendships” are rarely consistent and lasting.

From our partner International Affairs

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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