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US elections: How the Democrats will deal with China

From India’s point of view, an important question in this US election is how the Democrats will deal with China. India is the only country to face physical aggression with multiple incursions along the border since Beijing began flailing about in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. India is a ‘frontline’ State in the wider confrontation.

To be sure, Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s take on China is different from President Donald Trump’s, but how different is the question because the degree matters for those in direct line of fire. It’s telling that whether or not Russia wants Trump re-elected, China wants him out.

Fair or not, China sees Biden as more predictable and, therefore, manageable. Once upon a time, Biden was in China’s corner, pinning hopes on Xi Jinping’s ascendance and praising Xi for his willingness to show ‘another side of Chinese leadership’. Except it turned out to be the dark side.

These days, Biden calls Xi a ‘thug’. That’s a long and a high jump from when he was vice-president and let China be for the most part. If he were to win, Biden would have to establish his ‘realist’ credentials. His aides have gone to great lengths to say he ‘gets it’.

It’s true that both Democrats and Republicans have moved from an unquestioning embrace and enabling of China to a place of fear and loathing. It’s been a long journey and the Trump administration finally broke the glass around China, identifying it as a revisionist power in national security documents. But the end of the age of pretence hasn’t been easy for all.

Question is, how would the Democrats take the China policy forward? A good pointer is their sweeping, 613-page Bill introduced last month that promises $350 billion in ‘new funding’ to mobilise all aspects of US national power at home and abroad. It’s called the ‘America LEADS (Labour, Economic competitiveness, Alliances, Democracy and Security) Act’. While the Bill won’t go anywhere in this Congress, it will be reintroduced next year, and under a possible Biden administration will serve as the yardstick for Dem sentiment on Capitol Hill. So, it’s worth paying attention.

The Bill tackles everything from rebuilding domestic muscle in manufacturing, science and technology, supply chains, 5G, artificial intelligence (AI) and microelectronics, to preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific and investing in alliances and partnerships. It’s a blend of confrontation and cooperation — Democrats want to work with China on climate change, but push back in almost every other sphere.

After a careful reading and rereading, one can’t escape the feeling that India is an ‘also ran’ for the Dems, at least in this vision of the Indo-Pacific. That only two pages are devoted to South Asia and eight to the Arctic region tells you something.

It’s also striking that the Bill talks of Chinese ‘coercion’ in Europe, but makes no mention of China’s physical aggression against India. The two Canadian prisoners in China are named, but the brutal killing of 20 Indian soldiers by Chinese troops in Galwan is completely forgotten.

India is listed almost perfunctorily once with non-treaty partners in a section on security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, and then in the short section on South Asia with promises of support ‘as appropriate’ after ‘close consultation’. Not a thundering recognition of the country or the partnership. Almost every other region gets more exhaustive treatment compared to South Asia — a region China most directly impacts.

The Bill also completely ignores the Quad initiative comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan, which has emerged as a crucial mechanism for dialogue and cooperation among the four ‘democracies’ for managing China’s rise and fighting Covid-19. Was it out of pique the Dems ignored Quad because the grouping became more real under Trump?

There is, however, a greater emphasis on human rights. US cooperation and largesse are linked to the state of minorities in the recipient country. Free defence equipment and money for training will be granted only if the US State Department gives a good report. The idea is to return the US to a ‘values-centred foreign policy’.

In sum: Congressional Democrats want to invest at home to increase competitiveness, woo the Europeans back from their angry corner, and then look at Asian treaty allies and partners. Biden doesn’t have to necessarily follow their lead. But he does need their blessing for any big initiative on China.

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