There are real & substantive differences between Trump & Biden on South Asia policy that shouldn’t be shrugged off.
Many observers have argued that the implications of the US election—which, as of this writing, did not yet have a winner—are relatively limited for South Asia. This is because both Donald Trump and Joe Biden hold similar views about the region—an island of accord in a sea of partisan-driven discord.
This perspective makes sense. Both men support a strong partnership with India, and view New Delhi as a key partner to help push back against Beijing’s presence in the Indo-Pacific.
They both back the peace process in Afghanistan and support the withdrawal of US troops. And they both envision a workable relationship with Pakistan that emphasises Islamabad’s efforts to combat terrorism and its assistance in Afghan peace talks.
However, there are also real and substantive differences between the two men on South Asia policy that shouldn’t be shrugged off as marginal. In this sense, the election, and its winner, do matter for India and its neighbours.
Biden’s Foreign Policy Vision & Stance On India
First, consider India policy. A Biden administration would be more willing than its predecessor to call out India on its human rights record in Kashmir and beyond. To be sure, given the overarching, bipartisan goal of pursuing partnership with New Delhi, a Biden White House would be restrained in its criticism to avoid rocking the boat. But do expect some criticism.
Candidate Biden articulated a foreign policy vision that revolves around strengthening democracy at home and abroad—a throwback to the democracy-promotion efforts of the early 1990s.
In a recent op-ed for India West, Biden hinted at his intention to highlight rights issues in India, noting that “We will meet every challenge together as we strengthen both democracies,” including freedom of expression and religion.
Criticism would not be well received by an Indian government that often appears allergic to uncomplimentary overseas commentary about its domestic affairs.
How Does Biden Plan To Tackle Afghanistan?
Now consider Afghanistan. Biden favours a more gradual and ‘responsible’ withdrawal of US forces than Trump does. This means he may slow down the pace of troop departures if violence levels continue to surge and if the Taliban—as is likely—keeps rejecting ceasefire or violence reduction demands. A slowdown in troop departures could improve US relations with an Afghan government that has long worried about a Trump-led precipitous withdrawal. It would also ease pressure on beleaguered Afghan forces, which still request US airpower to help them repel Taliban offensives.
Biden may also be stricter than Trump in interpreting the US.-Taliban agreement, signed in February, which calls for all US troops to withdraw by next spring so long as the Taliban has ceased cooperation with al-Qaeda and other actors that threaten America. There’s little indication the Taliban has done so.
Given that Biden has long argued that counter terrorism considerations should guide US policy in Afghanistan, he wouldn’t necessarily give the Taliban a free pass—even though Biden, a vocal opponent of Barack Obama’s troop surge, is keen to draw down.
Look for Biden to push what he’s long championed—a small, residual, counter terrorism-focused force. Admittedly, this could prompt a major disagreement with the Taliban, which wants all US troops out.
Biden’s Vast ‘Pakistan Connect’ Could Be Both A Boon & A Curse
Then there’s Pakistan. Unlike Trump, Biden has a strong understanding of the country, and he has relationships with leaders across the civilian and military ranks.
Biden’s extensive experiences and contacts in Pakistan could be a blessing and a curse for the US relationship with Islamabad.
On the one hand, it could help his administration achieve a comfort level with Pakistan that facilitates diplomacy and communication. On the other hand, many of Biden’s past engagements with Islamabad took place during the Obama administration, when bilateral relations were especially tense. The legacy of the mistrust and other baggage from the Obama years could take some time for Biden and other former Obama hands in a Biden administration to shake off.
Biden Would Try To Rejoin Iran Nuclear Deal: Implications For India & The Region
Furthermore, sharp differences between Biden and Trump on other foreign policy issues have relevance for South Asia. Biden, more than Trump, would emphasise diplomacy to build global coalitions to pursue common goals—from counterbalancing China to combating climate change.
Biden would also try to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. An improved US-Iran relationship would be a boon for India, given Tehran’s commercial importance for New Delhi and India’s preference for a relaxed US sanctions regime.
It would also benefit the region on the whole, given that no one wants the US-Iran rivalry to spiral out of control.
What Counts Most – That The World’s Sole Superpower Be Helmed By A Steady Hand
Finally, there is the issue of governing style. Biden—despite his quirks—is as conventional and predictable as Trump is mercurial. One can gush about the personal chemistry between Trump and Imran Khan or the Trump-Modi ‘bromance’. But at the end of the day, what counts the most for global leaders—in South Asia and beyond—is that the world’s sole superpower be helmed by a steady hand.
Michael Kugelman is Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
This article was originally published on The quint. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.