US President-elect Joe Biden’s national security/foreign policy team is nearly complete, with one exception. He has still not named a nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, but the rest are all in: Antony Blinken, nominee for secretary of state; Lloyd Austin for secretary of defence; Avril Haines for director of national intelligence; Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, and John Kerry, special envoy on climate.
So, what does this team augur for United States (US)’s ties with India on Biden’s watch? Some of them know India well — and Indians know them well also: Blinken, Sullivan and Kerry chiefly, as carry-overs from the Obama-Biden administration — and others not so well.
But Austin and Haines, who have had no known direct dealings with India, know South Asia well. Austin, because he led the US military’s Central Command, the marquee combat formation that is responsible for operations in Afghanistan and deals with Pakistan. Haines may know the region even more intimately as she oversaw the drone programme for the Obama White House. As National Security Council legal adviser, she cleared the strikes, a large number of which took place in the restive Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
But after January 20, when Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th US president, their resumes, past speeches and writings will matter less than what they will say and do in their new roles. Take China, for instance. It’s a top concern for Indians now, notwithstanding a campaign promise that a Biden administration will “work with India to support a rules-based and stable Indo-Pacific region in which no country, including China, is able to threaten its neighbors with impunity”. With the Chinese amassing troops along the border, Indians want to see more, even as they acknowledge that the US will not conduct its foreign policy to please India, echoing a Democratic congressional aide who is normally sympathetic to India but is frustrated by “constant pushing on China” .
Where would the Biden administration stand, next, on India’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems, which could potentially attract secondary sanctions under a US law? Nothing heard from the Biden team yet, but the US, under outgoing President Donald Trump, sanctioned Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, for buying the same weapon systems a fortnight ago.
The Biden team has also not remarked on India-US trade differences. Will he continue the trade talks initiated by Trump? Katherine Tai, who is Biden’s nominee for US trade representative, will be a key figure to watch.
The Modi government, I suppose, will also want to gauge the new administration’s stand on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which had been criticised by a section of candidate Biden’s election platform. They were not mentioned in Biden’s “agenda for the Indian American community”. Biden has been accused of missteps on foreign policy before, but it needs to be noted, not on India.