U.S. policy focus might shift to multilateralism, says expert

Wednesday’s announcement of Kamala Harris being named as the running mate of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden could become one of the key drivers of the 2020 campaign given the ongoing immigration debate in the U.S., according to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.

“I think the theme of her life, her background, her connections to both the African-American community and the Indian-American community, are going to be one of the drivers of the campaign,” Mr. Ignatius said.

“We are coming from a Trump administration that is very much looking inward, at ‘America First’, and in some instances an outspokenly anti-immigration administration. Now, we have in a ticket in the VP [Vice President] slot somebody who directly embodies the strengths of [our] diverse culture.”

Rebuilding ties

Mr. Ignatius, who is a leading American writer on foreign affairs, said that a possible Biden-Harris administration would focus more on rebuilding U.S. relations with allies and partners, including India, and likely have a different view on the role of multilateralism with respect to trade. One of President Trump’s first acts in office was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

“The inability to politically carry through the TPP was one of the biggest mistakes of American foreign policy in the last few decades,” he said, speaking at a virtual forum held by the Synergia Foundation, a strategic affairs think-tank. “It was an agreement that created momentum that would have been undesirable for the Chinese. Perhaps there will be a way to find a new version of that.”

He expected “new attention” on allies and partners including India. “We will turn to India for conversations on the shape of Asia, we will turn to Japan too. If the U.S. is sensible and doesn’t go about alienating allies that it is lucky to have, it begins with an enormous advantage [vis-a-vis China].”

He said “the degree of Chinese assertiveness will be a driver” in shaping India-U.S. relations, and the “fact that the U.S. and India talk with such clarity and shared interest with China” was itself a recent development. “I can remember a time when it [China] was an awfully tricky conversation and and we would skirt around it. We don’t now.”

At the same time, he said both sides would be “careful” about the prospect of relations going beyond the current partnership into any kind of alliance. “A closer India-U.S. relationship in the defence space is a good thing. In terms of whether there is something more formal, that is going to be shaped by Chinese decisions. Even with China’s extraordinary belligerence on the Indian frontier, we want to be careful about forming what would be a military alliance when it comes to China.”

Economic aspect

Former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon agreed with Mr. Ignatius that “it is not the time for an Asian NATO” and today’s situation was not similar to a bipolar Cold War era.

“Today’s problem is anarchy and opportunism, rather than a fixed bipolar world where we are operating,” he said. “Our primary congruence with the U.S. is really maritime.”

While the “time is ripe for a much more active U.S. involvement” in Asia, Mr. Menon said the economic aspect should be one focus, with the region “looking like China’s economic sphere” with the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP and India also walking away from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal.

“It would make sense if the U.S. re-engages economically, with the TPP or a version of it that brings the Indo-Pacific together,” he said.

Traditional values

On the likely foreign policy priorities of a possible Biden administration, Mr. Menon expected “a return to some traditional values like democracy, human rights and fundamentally to more multilateralism” and working with institutions.

Both agreed there would, however, be some continuity in dealing with China, with a “consensus” emerging in the U.S. on a harder line in dealing with China’s rise.

Mr. Menon noted that approval ratings of the U.S. were higher than he could ever remember in India. “What China’s behaviour has done is revitalise the Quad [the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia grouping], and has got those of us on China’s periphery working together in ways that would not have been possible years ago,” he said. “If the U.S. comes back looking for allies, she will find willing partners.”

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