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Can Biden afford dragging South Asia towards strategic instability?

American actions to build India against China have come at a cost of instability in South Asia, particularly for its potential impact on Pakistan’s security, making it essential for President Biden to pursue a balanced Asia policy.

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The United States emerged as the wealthiest nation from World War II and shaped a “rules-based order,” which is under stress with China’s steady rise and Russia’s increasing resurgence. A general prognosis holds that a complete reset of Sino-U.S. relationship seems unthinkable i.e., it will be cooperative on a narrow band. President Biden had welcomed Chinese government’s cooperation on issues such as climate change, global health security, arms control, and nonproliferation.

During the recent talks at Anchorage, the attempt to reset relations was as frosty as Alaska’s weather. China refuted US’ accusations on dwindling human rights, and held that the essence of bilateral relations was a mutual benefit and win-win cooperation rather than a zero-sum game.

President Joe Biden salvaged the New START treaty from collapsing on February 5. There are prospects that he will make more efforts to build strategic stability with Russia and with other members of P-5. Yet, the Biden-Putin chemistry, which is essential to take bold steps to reset relations towards stability, seems little so far.

Read more: Op-ed: Pakistan’s has concerns over the growing strategic ties of US India

U.S. not willing to cede leadership role 

The core issue being – just what a superpower is expected to do; the United States has gotten used to being the first amongst the equals. It is not ready to cede the leadership position, Washington has enjoyed for the last 76 years. In doing so, it is capitalizing the old alliances and building defense ties with new partners, such as India and others, primarily to maintain the adversarial relations with China. With its help, India is emerging as an anti-China factor in a region that spreads from the western flanks of the Indian Ocean through Southern and Eastern Asia till the eastern rims of the Pacific Ocean. In the Quad, the United States desires to bestow India with a net security provider role in the Indian Ocean region.

Building alliances against a strong adversary has been a norm of history. If the United States could alone contain China and Russia, it would not have created Quad and given a triage to frayed relations with NATO in the last four years. The American preference to build Indian military power against China has two problems. One, it is a source of strategic instability in South Asia because the foundational military agreements like BECA increase Pakistan’s security dilemma. Two, India will not in any case sacrifice its security for the United States.

New Delhi won’t yield to all U.S dictates

While New Delhi is happily benefiting from the spigots of military technology that the West and even Russia have opened, Indian leaders have repeatedly reminded their suitors that New Delhi will not enter any alliances.

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Read more: India, a colossal washout in US versus China showdown

In his 2020 book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, Foreign Minister Jaishankar has clearly called for maintaining strategic autonomy, and that his country shall prefer remaining outside formal alliance groupings, depending on its interests. New Delhi will at best “hedge” while dealing with the United States. This begs the question; how far the United States shall be able to entice India and other members of Quad to maintain its global ascendancy.

New Delhi has been signaling that on a pro-U.S. course, it will not follow a cold approach towards Russia – the arch American adversary. Similar conclusion can be drawn from recent Galwan Valley crisis between Beijing and New Delhi. If India did not opt for kinetic military operations and did not fight a limited conventional war, would it return American favors in a U.S.-China war?

So far, the United States remains the greatest power in world history and is still the knowledge and technology leader. These two elements are likely to ensure its global primacy for some decades because China and Russia still have a lot of catching up to do.

The evidence shows that American infatuation for India as a potential counter-weight to China is not recent and dates back to the 1940s. One would expect the United States to maintain some levers to get best returns for its investments in India. That, however, seems unlikely because of the immense influence Indian Diaspora enjoys on American policy. President Biden recently acknowledged the good work his Vice President, speech writer, and many other Indian immigrants have done.

Rising strategic instability in South Asia

American efforts to build India against China are a source of instability in South Asia, particularly for its potential impact on Pakistan’s security. The United States can adopt a balanced approach to build strategic stability in South Asia. Instability would divert American focus from its other global priorities.

Read more: Conciliatory gestures raise hope for a US China trade deal

One of the American founding fathers left a lasting lesson in this regard. James Madison famously wrote in the Federalist Papers, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition…” This principle lies at the core of American value to preserve liberty. The entire American government experiment is based upon this phrase. This system of checks and balances in American governance can also be generalized to maintain a “rules-based order” that the United States has built over the years.

Like the U.S. needs India to counter China, it also requires some regional powers to keep New Delhi’s ambition in check. The Asia Pacific, Indian Ocean and Subcontinent regions are large enough to cater to several competing interests, thus require suitable arrangements. Instead of falling in the infamous Thucydides trap of adversarial relationship leading to war, the United States can see these regions with a win-win paradigm rather than a zero-sum game.

U.S. drifting away from its core values

If the United States adopts a win-win approach, it may be able to retain India’s long-term support, which is interested in retaining its strategic autonomy instead of sacrificing New Delhi for New York. For instance, India went for buying Russian S-400 in spite of American CAATSA. In fact, Washington had to create an exception for New Delhi to sanction its NATO ally for buying the Russian weapons.

Likewise, the United States has had to compromise on its core value system and way of life by looking the other way to India’s gross human rights violations and other excesses against free speech. Its ironical that U.S.-India relations were built on shared values which are gradually eroding and may revert that of pre-2005 “estranged democracies” period.

Read more: Kissinger appreciates Pakistan’s key-role in establishing China-US ties

To prevent placing all eggs in one basket and build strategic stability in South Asia, the United States may reset its relations with Pakistan. The first step would be to resume ministerial level Strategic Dialogue that is frozen since 2016. During that dialogue spanning six years, both sides examined cooperation in economic and financial, energy, education and science, defense and strategic stability and non-proliferation areas. A balanced Asia policy of engagement is a tradition worth creating by President Biden.

The writer works as Senior Research & Policy Analyst at NUST Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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